Wild & Scenic reality after decade of work

Michelle Monroe

By Michelle Monroe

Executive Editor

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The Facts

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Commemoration a time to celebrate

SHELDON — Around 50 people gathered at The Abbey in Sheldon on Saturday afternoon to celebrate the designation of the Trout River and the Upper Missisquoi as Wild and Scenic Rivers.

There was also a surprise for John Little, of Montgomery, who has long been involved in efforts to improve the rivers. He received the Frank Church Wild and Scenic Rivers Award from the River Management Society for his work in securing the designation for the local rivers.

Since the designation was created in 1968, 13,000 miles of rivers in 39 states have received the designation, according to Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. Congress must approve the designation, and these are the first rivers in Vermont to achieve the designation.

The entire process took about a decade.

Little said the endeavor began when he and another member of the Missisquoi River Basin Association (MRBA) attended a river rally.

“A few beers with some parks service people and they convinced me maybe we had a wild and scenic river,” said Little.

Little and other members of MRBA then began lobbying town selectboards for letters of support for the required study and in 2008 a bill authorizing one was introduced. It took one and a half years to get it through Congress.

The study then took a little more than three years, with Shana Stewart-Deeds serving as staff for the study committee.

At Town Meeting Day in 2013, nine of the 10 communities along the designated area gave their approval for the designation, with only Lowell turning it down.

Then came the waiting, said Little.

In December 2014, he received an e-mail saying that the designation had been added to the U.S. defense budget bill. “I said, ‘What?'” said Little. “That makes no sense.”

But it was there “on page 1,400 and whatever,” he added.

Then it passed. Little described his reaction as “a day or two of elation and jumping up and down … and then I realized … that’s going to mean a bunch more meetings.”

Now that the designation has passed, a committee will be formed to oversee the management of the two rivers and the implementation of the management plan created as part of the wild and scenic study.

Welch said approving the designation when it had so much grassroots support should have been “simple and straightforward.” Instead, it took a while.”

In 1968, when Congress created the designation there was a “strong consensus we were custodians of our environment,” said Welch. “The Congress we’re in today does not share that consensus.”

Instead, there was suspicion of the goals of the designation’s supporters. “There was a lot of fear in Congress about what’s the motivation of people who want to do this,” said Welch.

“I’m working with some of the best minds of the 18th Century and they don’t believe in climate change,” said Welch.

There is a vacuum of leadership in Washington, in Welch’s view, with national leaders not doing enough to help local communities. “What you’re showing is you don’t have to wait. You can do it on your own,” said Welch.

Speaking on behalf of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy D-Vt., Tom Berry said, “This is a great day.”

“It was the committee and communities that got this done,” said Berry. Although the final push through Congress took all three members of Vermont’s delegation. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ staff got the bill through the Senate committee overseeing the designation, and Leahy’s staff got it attached to the defense budget.

Sanders, who sent a staff person to read a letter from him, also congratulated those who organized the grassroots effort, stating, “The hard work was done by you.”

Jake Kutcher, of Westfield, who chaired the study committee, said, “We wanted to be sure people understood this was a grassroots effort.”

Donna Moody, an anthropologist and a member of the Abenaki, spoke about the importance of the Missisquoi as a source of food and transportation for indigenous people.

A connection to place is a key part of Abenaki culture, according to Moody, who added that unlike other native peoples the Abenaki were not removed from their homeland.

“We’re still here,” said Moody. “We’re still connected to place.”

Little, who was visibly moved when given the Frank Church award, concluded his remarks by saying, “Thank you guys. It ain’t me. It’s you guys.”

In addition to the creation of the management plan, the designation bars the federal government from placing dams on the rivers, although nothing prevents local governments from doing so. Zoning along the rivers also remains the hands of the local towns.

One of the primary benefits of the designation is its use in promoting tourism and recreation along the rivers. A series of events is planned along the river this summer. For a full listing, visit Celebrate the Missisquoi (www.celebratethemisssiquoi.com).