The Connecticut River begins within a small lake in New Hampshire and flows south more than 400 miles until it flows into Long Island Sound. It is New England’s largest river and longest river, and now it is America’s first National Blueway, a designation awarded by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Decked out in cowboy hat and jeans, an outfit more appropriate for work in his native Colorado, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, stood near the banks of the Connecticut River in Hartford, and signed the order that brought new honors to the Connecticut River.
The new National Blueways System is part of the federal government’s Great Outdoors Initiative designed to create “a community-driven conservation and recreation agenda for the 21st century,” according to an Interior Department news release.
Salazar said decades ago, like many other U.S. rivers, the Connecticut was a “landscaped sewer system” plagued by pollution. Local and state governments and various federal agencies joined with a large contingent of environmental and business interests to clean up the river.
The collaborative effort is one reason the Connecticut River was chosen as the first National Blueway, according to Salazar. “You have turned the consciousness and the eyes of the community to embrace the qualities of the river,” he said. “You, unlike many other places around the (nation) have put together the kind of partnership we need to celebrate and emulate in other places,” said the Secretary.
While other federal designations such as Wild and Scenic Rivers tend to highlight specific sections of a waterway, Salazar explained that the National Blueways project will focus on the entire river and its 7.2 million acre watershed.
The program will not foster any new federal regulations or protective measures for the Connecticut River; however rivers in the National Blueways system likely will get special attention for various conservation and restoration programs under the aegis of the Interior Department.
Salazar linked the ecological health of rivers with their potential to serve as “job creators”. The Secretary contends seven to nine million jobs are tied to outdoor recreation and tourism, and projects such as the National Blueways system may help create an additional 3.3 million jobs by 2021. “You see it up and down the Connecticut River,” said Salazar. “You see it through the bikers, the hikers, and the hunters in the watershed, and all of the people who use this great place,” he explained.
“I think it is fitting that the Connecticut River, which provided the inspiration to Hartford native Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) as he wrote about Huck and Finn on the river, be named the first National Blueway,” said U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT). Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy said the Blueway designation is “a fitting recognition of the history, beauty, and value of this tremendous national resource.”
Save the Sound, a program of the private environmental group, the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, said the Blueways project will help build on the regional importance of the Connecticut River. “It links the (Long Island) Sound’s health to activities happening in Vermont, Massachusetts, and even Canada,” said Leah Schmalz, director of the organization legislative and legal affairs unit. “Long known as the region’s premier fish passage way, (this) designation shows that (the Connecticut River) is also a premier recreational passage way,” she said.
Salazar signed the secretarial order establishing the National Blueways System at his Hartford news conference, along with a directive designating the Connecticut as the first river in the program.
This was the latest honor the Connecticut in a litany of honors. Previously it was named an American Heritage River, which recognizes its historic and cultural heritage. The River’s estuary in Long Island Sound is viewed as a wetlands area of international importance under the rules of the Ramsar Convention, and the entire Connecticut River watershed is also known as the Silvio Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.
Follow Steve Kotchko on Twitter for news and insider tidbits on politics and government: @CRN_News