[Editor’s note: It’s often said that those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In this spirit, Xpress presents the following assessment of the Battle for the French Broad; this is the first of a two-part series.]
“At this point … we’ve been able to leverage over $16 million” in grants for conservation and economic-revitalization projects.
— New River “navigator” Ben Borda
Supporters promised it would pull in millions of federal dollars to revitalize riverfronts in WNC and East Tennessee. Opponents warned it would lead to United Nations troops invading America in black helicopters to seize private property. Nearly five years ago, the campaign to win federal American Heritage River designation for the French Broad sparked a bizarre debate that ended when U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor of Brevard scotched the river’s nomination at the 11th hour.
Today, with state and local budget crises making cash for innovative environmental and economic revitalization projects scarcer than ever, the losers in the French Broad fight look ruefully at the millions of dollars being funneled into communities along the New and St. Johns rivers, which did accept the designation. To date, there’s been no sign of any troops in blue helmets in these areas — nor any new taxes, zoning regulations or takings of private property. But there has been grant money for everything from environmental cleanup to sustainable-agriculture projects to downtown revitalization efforts.
Meanwhile, across Western North Carolina and the nation at large, essentially the same battle is being waged again and again. As the rural hinterlands of America finally begin to confront their long-festering pollution problems, new environmental-protection efforts (including, locally, such hot-button topics as stream-buffer regulations and wilderness designations for old-growth forest) often encounter intense opposition from allegedly “grassroots” property-rights advocates who claim to be battling an unholy alliance of radical environmentalists and proponents of one-world government who are said to be conspiring to seize and depopulate large portions of the United States.
The American Heritage Rivers controversy demonstrates the impact of a powerful current of popular mistrust of government. And while environmentalists may be underestimating this phenomenon to their detriment, industry lobby groups and legislators appear to be manipulating it to their advantage.
A brave beginning
Then-President Clinton proposed the rivers initiative in his 1997 State of the Union address: “This year, I will designate 10 American Heritage Rivers to help communities alongside them revitalize their waterfronts and clean up pollution in the rivers, proving once again that we can grow the economy as we protect the environment.” As described more fully in a June executive order, the nonregulatory program would help riverside towns work together to obtain federal assistance and other resources, aided by a “river navigator” whose full-time task would be to help guide them through the bureaucratic shoals surrounding the dozen or so federal agencies that could have the most impact on riparian communities.
“I happened to be watching the State of the Union address when the program was announced,” remembers Karen Cragnolin, executive director of the Asheville-based nonprofit RiverLink. “Being ‘river-centric,’ I called the White House the next day. We may have been the first people in. [We let them know that] if there’s any way to reconnect the people of this region to their rivers, we want it.”
Cragnolin quickly got both Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt of North Carolina and Republican Gov. Don Sundquist of Tennessee to shake hands and agree to work together to secure the designation for the river the two states share — even as they were locked in a feud over a lawsuit concerning the pollution of the Pigeon River, another shared waterway. Cragnolin and Asheville attorney Doug Wilson, then RiverLink’s board president, say that every elected official and chamber of commerce they talked to in the two states was enthusiastic about the program — including pro-business Republicans such as N.C. Rep. Trudi Walend, who joined an American Heritage Rivers steering committee. Acclaimed author (and Asheville native) Wilma Dykeman — whose landmark book The French Broad sounded a clarion call for river restoration decades before the rise of the modern environmental movement — traveled to Washington, D.C., in support of the river’s nomination, gaining audiences with Tennessee Sens. Bill Frist and Fred Thompson. The two Republicans, Cragnolin says, embraced the idea as a way to gain more money and resources for East Tennessee. And Asheville business owners ranging from William Cecil of The Biltmore Company to River District property owners also backed or did not oppose the plan, Wilson reports.
By late 1997, the steering committee had collected 5,000 signatures in support of the French Broad’s nomination. Buncombe County Commissioner David Young traveled to Washington and spoke eloquently before a congressional committee on the river’s behalf.
As luck would have it, Clinton’s secretary of the interior, Bruce Babbitt, turned out to be a longtime fan of Dykeman’s pioneering 1955 plea for environmental stewardship. When he visited Asheville to examine the river firsthand, Babbitt immediately asked to visit the S.B. Penick & Co. Warehouse (described by Dykeman as the place where mountain folk brought their “sang” and other medicinal herbs to sell) and was disappointed to learn that the Broadway building no longer exists. A naturalist himself, Babbitt rattled off the names of trees and species he saw as he traveled down the French Broad with the local committee.
“We got the definite impression from Babbitt, ‘Why not this river?’ We were flying, we were pumped,” Cragnolin recalls.
She and fellow supporters envisioned obtaining funds to build tourist-attracting “blueways” and “greenways” along the river, clean up and restore blighted industrial areas, and even bring back passenger-rail service between Asheville and Knoxville through the French Broad River Gorge — the route once served by the old Carolina Special.
Ominously, however, the one elected official who wouldn’t talk to them, despite repeated attempts, was Taylor.
“He refused even to give 15 minutes with us,” remembers Wilson. “He absolutely would not meet with us to hear our side of the story. It caused great suspicion as to what was actually going on.”
Rocky waters ahead
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to local supporters, the rivers initiative had been hitting rocky waters in Washington almost from the start. Although a sizable majority in Congress supported the project, there was a small but virulent opposition led by Rep. Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, a firebrand anti-environmentalist whose supporters included that state’s notoriously extremist right wing (leaders of the Aryan Nations numbered among her fans).
Chenoweth was one politician who was literally in bed with the movement to roll back environmental protections. A loud “family values” critic of Clinton’s escapades with Monica, she was forced to admit in 1998 that she herself had had a sexual affair with Idaho rancher Vernon Ravenscroft, the founder of the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” the seminal 1980s anti-federal-land-use movement in the Western states.
Chenoweth gathered some support among her colleagues for a bill she introduced to block the rivers initiative by making the constitutional argument that the president had bypassed Congress’ legal authority to authorize funding (though, in truth, the initiative was designed only to help communities tap into already-designated grant moneys). As a compromise, the Clinton administration agreed to allow a river to be withdrawn from consideration if the nomination was opposed by any member of Congress through whose district the river ran. Chenoweth promptly yanked Idaho’s Clearwater River from consideration. In 1997, the conservation group American Rivers had included the waterway on a list of America’s 20 most threatened rivers, noting that the state of Idaho was under a court order to clean up water-quality problems caused by steep-slope logging on its banks.
But that wasn’t enough for Chenoweth and her allies. Shortly after Sept. 11, 1997 (the date Clinton issued Executive Order 13061, which laid out the program’s parameters), Chenoweth sounded the notes of alarm that would be heard and repeated by “property-rights” activists across the nation — including here in Western North Carolina.
“This program is illegal, has not met public requirements, misappropriates funds Congress mandated for other purposes, and usurps individual water rights, private property rights, and the sovereignty of all 50 States. It defies the imagination how President Clinton could ram this initiative down our throats,” she declared in testimony for a bill she had introduced in June to prohibit federal agencies from spending any funds on this initiative.
It didn’t seem to matter that one of the lead paragraphs in Clinton’s order had stated:
“In accordance with Executive Order 12630, agencies shall act with due regard for the protection of private property provided for by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. No new regulatory authority is created as a result of the American Heritage Rivers initiative. This initiative will not interfere with matters of State, local, and tribal government jurisdiction.” EO 12630 was a Bush-administration order forbidding uncompensated government “takings” of property, inspired by the very same movement Chenoweth’s boyfriend had helped found.
Chenoweth’s attack was far from a lone crusade. She was closely connected with several very influential corporate-front groups (which we’ll look at in Part 2 of this article). In fact, another of her admitted bed partners was her former boss, retired U.S. Sen. Steve Symms of Idaho, who’s now a board member of ECO, the deceptively named Environmental Conservation Organization (no connection with the Hendersonville-based, pro-environmental Environmental and Conservation Organization). ECO and Liberty Matters, the public-relations wing of Stewards of the Range — on whose board Chenoweth herself would serve after leaving Congress three years later — joined with other front groups to launch a “grassroots” campaign against the initiative.
It was a chance to sow fundamental doubts and fears about the entire environmental movement, which had made great gains in public prestige under the Clinton/Gore administration. The groups took full advantage of the still-novel World Wide Web to distribute maps and articles purporting to prove that the river initiative’s promised federal grants were actually “the camel’s nose under the tent” (as one property-rights activist put it) that would lead to a full-blown takeover of Americans’ property rights by environmental extremists in league with the United Nations. The initiative’s river corridors, they claimed, “harmonized with” a plan supposedly mandated by the 1992 Rio Biodiversity Treaty to link isolated wilderness areas into “biospheres” that would, they suggested darkly, be controlled by foreigners from the United Nations. This was also tied in, they insisted, with a supposed plan by radical environmentalists (EarthFirst! founder Dave Foreman got top billing here) to remove human beings from 50 to 90 percent of America’s lands and return the country to the native species as part of the “notorious Wildlands Project.”
By December, U.S. News & World Report was headlining claims by Liberty Matters that “black U.N. helicopters” had been seen in Western states hovering around “United Nations World Heritage Sites” — parks and monuments (including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) that nominally participate in a world conservation program proposed by the U.S. in the 1970s and adopted by the U.N. The reports helped convince property-rights activists nationwide that U.N. troops were on the verge of invading and seizing their property if their congressional representatives didn’t withdraw their rivers from Clinton’s initiative. Congressmen in Kentucky, Texas and elsewhere did just that.
Doug Wilson of RiverLink confronted the local hysteria when he walked into a Council of Independent Business Owners breakfast meeting to give a presentation on the rivers initiative, not long after having gotten votes of approval from the chambers of commerce in all four WNC counties through which the river flows (Transylvania, Henderson, Buncombe and Madison). Wilson had come armed with copies of the Federal Reporter stating that there would be no takings, condemnations or regulations of property under this purely cooperative venture.
“I didn’t think there was anything that could offend the CIBO position — it looked to me to be all positive,” he recalls. “I got there and was passing out [my literature] and saw on the tables these unbelievable things about what this American Heritage [initiative] will do. One of them was this story that they were attempting to depopulate within a mile of each riverbank — make everybody move away — and how it was the first step to taking away your property. If you lived within such-and-such [distance] of a river, your property would be confiscated. I had some friends there, but the mindset was, we don’t care what the Federal Register says, we don’t care what all the publications say, we don’t care about any of that — we’re afraid the federal government’s coming in and taking our property!”
Mistrust of government fuels fears
In talking today with local people who opposed or had doubts about the French Broad’s nomination, it becomes apparent that the “one world government” paranoia, which was manipulated by corporate front groups fighting government environmental regulation, was really only the extremist tip of a much deeper and more widespread fear of encroaching government control of individuals’ lives. This genuine grassroots sentiment, these observers say, was seriously underestimated by supporters of the nomination.
Exacerbating the situation, some observers note, were concerns about excessive government intrusion that were still fresh in many locals’ minds, thanks to the recent bruising controversy over the United Development Ordinance, Asheville’s massive revision of its zoning regulations. Some riverfront business owners worried that RiverLink’s hidden agenda for pushing the rivers initiative was to grab their property for parkland. The clouds of suspicion coalesced around the federally appointed “river navigator,” whose role even supporters admit was only vaguely defined in the administration’s descriptions of the initiative.
“I think the biggest thing was, they [opponents] thought this river navigator was going to stop development along the waterfront,” recalls CIBO member Jerry Sternberg, then a riverfront property owner. “A lot of people have little mom-and-pop businesses along the waterfront, and they didn’t want to have to give up their businesses because somebody wanted to put a park there.”
Sternberg himself was and remains undecided about the river initiative, saying Taylor’s blocking the French Broad’s nomination shut the issue down before he really had time to learn much about it. And though Sternberg does remember seeing scare literature distributed by national organizations, he doesn’t think CIBO took a position on the issue.
Local-government watchdog Don Yelton believes far-reaching environmental measures are needed to save WNC’s rivers, but he opposes what he considers government regulators’ shortsighted, heavy-handed methods.
“People were agin it because of what they’ve seen in the past,” says Yelton, speaking about the rivers initiative. Supporters, he adds, ought to have realized that, when it’s a government program, “people are going to be suspicious.”
One of the most prominent critics of the French Broad designation was Franklin resident Sandra Hann. Even today, the self-described “little old grandma” remains adamant in opposing the rivers initiative, citing the same arguments Chenoweth used.
“I want to say that I am for clean water — I really don’t like dirty water,” she noted. But Hann went on to say: “Basically, my concern was that I didn’t want to be controlled by the federal government. I think it was 13 federal agencies would be in charge of it — I wanted to keep it in the state. … I’m for preserving our rivers, all their natural beauty. [But the initiative] would be another burden on our taxes. It should be a local thing — we shouldn’t turn it over to the federal government. … I am opposed to buying up of easements, restriction of property.”
Taylor pulls the plug
As the anti-initiative momentum built up steam, a Macon County-based grassroots group called the Preservation of Private Property Rights Alliance persuaded the Haywood County Board of Commissioners to write a letter opposing the designation of the French Broad. Ironically, the river doesn’t even run through either of those counties. Chenoweth herself traveled to WNC to rally the opposition. And popular conservative talk-show hosts Matt Cole and Matt Mittan of local station WTZY 880-AM took sharp aim at the initiative. Amid the growing furor, Rep. Walend resigned from the steering committee and announced her opposition to the initiative.
In spite of these ill omens, however, as the Jan. 1, 1998 deadline for objections to the designation approached, supporters were still hopeful that the opposition was too small and strange to catch the ear of the French Broad’s fence-sitting congressman. After all, both the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and the Asheville City Council had energetically rebuffed efforts by Carol Collins, the Buncombe County representative of the Property Rights Alliance, to persuade them to withdraw their endorsements of the French Broad’s nomination. “The enticement of the federal funding,” Collins warned at a December 1997 City Council meeting, “would result in onerous federal government intrusion.” In fact, Council members Chuck Cloninger, Ed Hay and Barbara Field angrily debated with her, with Cloninger accusing the Alliance of “trying to raise the specter of some conspiracy.”
Then came the fatal blow. The Dec. 30, 1997 Asheville Citizen-Times reported that Taylor’s Washington aide was circulating a letter, to be sent to Secretary of the Interior Babbitt, stating Taylor’s opposition to the American Heritage Rivers Initiative. At first, Taylor denied having any knowledge of the letter. The next day, however, he announced that he would block the designation of the French Broad.
The river initiative’s stunned and puzzled supporters didn’t realize that the reasons Taylor gave for opposing it were simply diplomatic rephrasings of Chenoweth’s arguments — that Clinton’s initiative had wrongly bypassed Congress, was too vaguely defined, and trampled private-property rights.
“Unless open, definitive proposals are enacted into law and are funded through the usual constitutional process, I cannot support these proposals either for my district or for any other district in the nation,” stated Taylor. Apparently disregarding the anti-takings provision in Clinton’s executive order — just as Chenoweth had done — Taylor “caution[ed] anyone who supports such a nebulous, undefined policy without insisting on explicit, legislative protection for the property owners of Western North Carolina and the nation.”
Later, Taylor tried to mollify the angry reaction to his veto by promising to develop his own river clean-up initiative for the French Broad — a promise, river activists say, they’re still waiting for him to fulfill.
Why did Taylor side with Chenoweth in opposing an initiative that was enthusiastically supported by so many of the movers and shakers in his constituency — as well as the writers of the thousands of letters Cragnolin said RiverLink presented to the congressman? And what ever became of Taylor’s own proposed initiative? His aide Richard Faulkner, the point man for the issue, referred this reporter to Taylor’s press secretary, Will Haynie, who didn’t return repeated phone calls. So we’re left to speculate.
One area where Chenoweth and Taylor clearly had a common interest was opposition to logging restrictions. Taylor — Western North Carolina’s wealthiest tree farmer — has stood up for timber interests whenever environmental constraints on logging have been proposed. At the time, Chenoweth chaired the House Resources Committee’s Forests and Forest Health Subcommittee — a position she used, according to the League of Conservation Voters, to ensure that the timber industry was “well represented.” Much of the Congressional rhetoric against the rivers initiative focused on the fact that one of the baker’s dozen of federal agencies involved in it was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; despite Clinton’s description of the program as “nonregulatory,” opponents feared the EPA would use the initiative to impose new restrictions on industries in river corridors.
Winners and losers
Both Cragnolin and Wilson are convinced that the French Broad would have won the designation but for Taylor. Some might question that conclusion, and only those who were in on the final decision can say for sure whether another local waterway, the New River, got its American Heritage Rivers designation because the French Broad was out of the running. (The New runs through Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina; Boone is one of the towns along its banks.) Still, a look at the experience of the New and another designated Southeast river — the St. Johns — is instructive.
All of the fears expressed by opponents appear to have proven groundless. The “13 federal agencies” Hann and Chenoweth feared would dictate policy to local governments have turned out to be no more than what the Clinton Administration promised they would be — sources of existing but previously untapped grant money. Far from regulating and seizing private property, the “river navigators” have, local officials gratefully report, taken off their hands the time- and paperwork-intensive task of finding money and expertise and putting them at the disposal of local coalitions of river stakeholders.
Hann, incidentally, refused to be swayed by these communities’ actual experiences — even though, as it happens, she herself lived on the St. Johns River (which runs past Jacksonville) until a decade ago. “Navigator is a man that’s in control; that’s the definition of navigator,” she insisted.
The mayor of Jacksonville, on the other hand, fought tenaciously — and successfully — to overcome the same sort of opposition that erupted here. Brad Thoburn of the mayor’s office says their river navigator has helped them acquire funding for such diverse purposes as cleaning up abandoned toxic industrial sites, Section 206 housing renewal, a trail corridor along the river, and other projects. Even more valuable than specific amounts of cash, however — which, he observes, haven’t quite measured up to the expectations raised five years ago — is the planning and prioritization he says his community has been able to focus on.
The New River basin, meanwhile, has profited handsomely from the federal designation, according to local River Navigator Ben Borda.
“At this point, after working on the watershed from an American Heritage Rivers perspective, we’ve been able to leverage over $16 million” in grants from federal, state, local and private-foundation sources, says Borda, for natural-resources and environmental protection, economic revitalization and cultural-resources preservation.
The money is being used to help clean up pollution from an abandoned copper mine (a $2 million undertaking), develop sustainable agriculture and alternative crops, plant buffers and restore streambanks, revitalize downtown areas, create a virtual business park, and do “all-hazards” emergency mitigation — among other projects. The funds aren’t restricted to the riverfront, either — the American Heritage River jurisdiction covers the whole area of the counties included in it.
None of the projects involve any property takings or new zoning regulations — “There’s no federal land grab,” Borda reports. There’s currently a push for voluntary conservation easements to protect the riparian corridor, but, “The idea there is to leave all those lands in private ownership, to leave them in the tax base.”
All of the rivers-initiative participants I spoke to emphasized that, far from increasing federal (not to mention United Nations) control over local communities, the initiative actually appears to be encouraging locals to cooperate in creating and carrying out their own redevelopment and revitalization plans — just as it was intended to do.
Is there any chance the French Broad River communities could re-apply for the American Heritage designation?
“I am not aware of any process available for new applications,” said EPA program administrator James Cole. But other Washington officials involved in the program were more encouraging. The rivers initiative has been so successful, notes Charlotte Gillis of the National Park Service, that there’s talk of expanding it beyond the 14 rivers currently included.
“I think you could even say it probably helped many of the others that applied but didn’t get selected,” Gillis says, citing Columbus, Ga., as a notable example. “They created partnerships and work plans that are being implemented even without the designation.”
Meanwhile, back at RiverLink, Karen Cragnolin agrees that the massive campaign on behalf of the French Broad River forged coalitions and created allies that are still working together on the river’s behalf. All the same, she says she still has trouble holding back tears at the mere thought of reopening the big box into which she threw all the paperwork and photos representing a year’s worth of hard work and hope, after her beloved river came, she believes, within a letter’s breadth of winning the American Heritage River designation.
“I just could never understand the opposition to it,” says Wilson with a sigh, “because it just seemed to be all wind. [The designation would have] provided tremendous resources for this area. … I felt especially badly for the people of Tennessee, who had worked so hard, and whose congressman was in support of it.” He notes an old mountain saw that a friend passed along to him after the veto:
“Don’t you dare tell me what to do with my property — but I’ll damn sure tell you what to do with yours.”