Wild and scenic: 12 towns and nearly a decade of work could lead to federal designation for 7 rivers
North Stonington — It’s taken nearly a decade, but a handful of Connecticut rivers are on track to receive a distinction rarely seen in New England.
Earlier this month, officials from the 12 Rhode Island and Connecticut towns involved with an effort to gain federal Wild and Scenic River status for the Wood and Pawcatuck rivers officially endorsed a stewardship plan for the rivers. The plan was produced by Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association after that nonprofit led a three-year study examining the rivers on behalf of the National Parks Service using volunteers from all 12 towns.
Now with the endorsement of the towns in hand, the plan and study will be presented to the National Parks Service and volunteers will continue to work with congressional delegates from both states to introduce legislation this fall that would amend the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to include the Beaver, Chipuxet, Green Fall-Ashaway, Queen-Usquepaugh, Pawcatuck, Shunock and Wood rivers.
Currently no rivers in Rhode Island bear the Wild and Scenic designation, and in Connecticut only two rivers have that status: the Farmington and Eightmile rivers.
“I think it’s really exciting for this region of the country to have its own wild and scenic Rivers and I think we can use it as a good tool to help appreciate what we have,” said Denise Poyer, study coordinator with the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association.
“There’s a scientific aspect ... but the bottom line is nobody would do this if you didn’t get this feeling when you are near a river that this is something special,” Poyer said of the passion people show for the rivers. “It calms you and fills you up at the same time.”
Established by Congress in 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was intended to preserve rivers with “outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free‐flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.” And although the designation would not add any additional regulations on the local or state levels, it would function as an added layer of protection by requiring that any federal or federally funded projects on the rivers be reviewed by the National Park Service, Poyer said.
If legislation amending the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is approved, it would mark the culmination of a nearly decadelong effort by several nonprofits, state agencies and volunteers.
Back in 2010, the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, along with the Nature Conservancy, Save the Bay, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, began looking into what needed to be done to get several rivers in the area designated as wild and scenic, Poyer said.
The coalition realized it needed to get towns to buy in and also asked congressional delegates to introduce bills to allow the National Park Service to conduct a study examining the merits of the rivers. And although the first bill in 2013 made it through the House and then stalled in the Senate, the second bill in 2015 ended up passing in both chambers — in part because Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., managed to attach it to a larger Defense Authorization Bill, Poyer said.
On the Connecticut side, Poyer said Sens. Chris Murphy and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, both D-Conn., and, in particular, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, have supported the effort.
“The Wood and Pawcatuck Rivers and the surrounding watershed area is a true ecological treasure right in our backyard," Courtney said in an emailed statement to The Day. "I look forward to continuing my work along with Rep. Jim Langevin and my (R.I.) colleagues to finalize this critical designation.”
The Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Protection Act gave the National Park Service authorization to conduct a study looking at the rivers, and NPS then signed a cooperative agreement with the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association to coordinate the study, while NPS acted as an adviser.
Near the end of 2015, the watershed association developed a study committee consisting of its own members and two representatives from each of the 12 towns affected by the rivers. In Connecticut, those towns were North Stonington, Stonington, Sterling and Voluntown; in Rhode Island the towns were Westerly, Charlestown, Hopkinton, Richmond, Exeter, North Kingstown, South Kingstown and West Greenwich.
With the help of NPS and a few nonprofits, members of the committee then began putting in the legwork to generate the data and help devise a stewardship plan for the rivers, and three years later had a finished study that NPS could present to Congress.
The study identified remarkable biodiversity around the rivers, tremendous recreation opportunities and important cultural values, especially connected to the old mills in the area, and the stewardship plan outlined some of the ways in which towns could work to manage their rivers.
“I see it as being something that gives our towns great recognition,” said Madeline Jeffery, one of the North Stonington representatives on the study committee, who compared the wild and scenic designation to winning an Academy Award or the Triple Crown. “It has that kind of celebration to it and I believe North Stonington and other towns can use this very positively.”
Fred Wagner, who along with Jim Leigh represented Stonington on the study committee, also sees several positive ways the designation and stewardship plan for the rivers can help the towns. He said for Stonington in particular, it is an excellent way to protect the estuary, which is big for tourism, recreation and affiliated businesses in town.
Meanwhile Dick Seager, the other North Stonington representative on the committee, pointed to the important role the designation and plan could play in educating residents.
“What it does do is hopefully educate towns on how to manage the rivers,” Seager said, adding that the rivers also serve as an important educational tool about local history. “It is important to know who we were ... the more we know about our history, the better off we will be.”