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Letter to the Editor: Federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Initiative

Executive Director SUALP, Price


The federal Wild and Scenic Rivers "initiative" seeks to identify and designate selected rivers intermittent streams and even dry washes in the State of Utah for special federal protection and designation as either "wild," "scenic" or "recreational." Designation will bring with it an entire new layer of federal regulation. Predictably, owners of river-based industries and river interest groups favor the 'initiative." The Grand County Council, by a 4-3 vote, and the Southeastern Utah Association of Local Governments oppose it. Their opposition is based upon both economic and constitution grounds and deserves a hearing in the public forum.

River-based industries argue that these designations will enhance their business. However, commercial Utah rivers that are under consideration for designation have limits on the number of float trips allowed each year. This industry can be enhanced by designation only up to the limits sets by the managing federal agency. The Westwater Canyon segment of the Colorado River in Grand County serves as a case-in-point. Commercial use on this river segment averaged 92 percent of available capacity for the period 1997 through 2003. From this example, growth in the river running industry resulting from designation will come more from increased prices than from increased tourist volume. Thus, restaurants, hotels and shops will realize little if any gain from designation while the river experience becomes ever more the province of the wealthy. Furthermore, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act requires not only "management" of the values of the river but also "enhancement" of those values. Therefore, while there appears room for eight percent growth in commercial use on the Westwater segment, management "enhancement" may require that the existing stretch of river targeted for designation under the federal "initiative." Precedent for reductions like this exists Formerly permitted outfitters have been driven out of national parks to enhance natural qualities.

While the federal Wild and Scenic River "initiative" may turn out to be Faustian bargain for the river running industry, this is not its most objectionable aspect. Federal jurisdictional power assumed under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act presumes that State waters, State police power in the form of local zoning authority within incorporated municipalities and even State territory all exist as manifestations of "statehood" only at the discretion and disposal of the federal government. That is, Congress presumes that any or all of these attributes of statehood may be "federalized" at its will. At its furthest extent, this reasoning must conclude that States exist as territorial and jurisdictional bodies only for so long and to such extent as Congress may from time to time determine. This is the same as to say that constitutional federalism, and therefore the Constitution itself, exists only in such form as Congress may from time to time determine to be useful to its purposes. Taking this reasoning one step further, this is the same as to say that Congress is the sole determinant of the extent and nature of our constitutional liberties. And most of us, the supremely uniformed and self-indulgent, are willing to allow Congress to assume this vast power if, in doing so, it also protects recreational and scenic opportunities on our rivers "for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations." What a grand exchange! Our constitutional right of self governance in exchange for federal protection of recreational opportunities for future generations. Certainly those generations will be grateful for our keep prescience. In sum, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act represents our tolerance and even encouragement of a perverse sense of values. The fact is that these "values" offend to the fullest extent possible the sacrifice made by millions before us for the sake of American-style, constitutional liberty. We now squander that liberty with abandon for what are, by comparison, light and transient purposes. Local officials oppose the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act not merely because it makes no economic sense, but also because, as elected representatives of the people, they have sworn a solemn and public oath that they would uphold and defend the Constitution and not the pretensions of men corrupted with usurped power.

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