UPDATED: Pawcatuck River receives federal protections

The Pawcatuck River, which flows through Stonington, North Stonington and Westerly, has gained federal protection as a designated Wild and Scenic River.

President Donald Trump signed a public lands package Tuesday to protect more than 1.3 million acres of land, including 367 miles of new scenic rivers. Included in the legislation was a provision authored by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., to designate river segments within the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

Classifying a river as "wild" means there is little development in surrounding areas and "scenic" means it is still largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads. The designation culminates a long effort by the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association to protect the rivers and the lands around them.

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons who helped gain similar designation for the Eight Mile River watershed in Lyme, Salem, East Haddam, East Lyme and Colchester when he served in Congress, said Wednesday that the new legislation "conserves an environmental asset for future generations."

"The real benefit of a Wild and Scenic designation is that hundreds of miles of meandering rivers and streams will be protected for future recreational use and the environmental components of the watershed will be protected from unwanted development," he said. "It makes this an environmental asset indefinitely into the future."

Simmons said that eco-tourism is becoming a more and more important segment of the economy and that the Pawcatuck River is a huge asset to attract those interested in kayaking, canoeing, birding and other types of passive recreation.

He called the legislation a "wonderful thing for us in southeastern Connecticut and southwestern Rhode Island."

Reed issued a statement that said Trump's signing of the legislation "establishes Rhode Island's first ever Wild and Scenic river system and provides access to federal funding to protect and maintain the rivers of this watershed for recreation, fisheries, and water quality preservation."

He said The John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, which overwhelmingly passed both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, "permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund, supports public lands, increases opportunities for outdoor recreation, and helps preserve open spaces nationwide, including in Rhode Island."

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Second District, who successfully introduced a bill in 2007 to secure protections for the Eight Mile River, also worked to secure the latest protection for the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed.  He and U.S. Rep. David Cicilline , D-R.I, introduced the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Protection Act in 2010. That bill commissioned a study to determine whether the rivers met the criteria for designation as "wild and scenic." The bill was signed into law in 2014.

"This designation will bring much-needed funding for research and conservation to our own natural treasure in Connecticut and Rhode Island," Courtney said. "I'm proud to have helped getting this bill over the finish line with my colleagues, and I know there are numerous stakeholders on the ground ready to get to work to preserve the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed for generations to come." 

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., added that "this special status will help protect the pristine rivers and tributaries of southwestern Rhode Island for generations to come."

Reed's office said that designating segments of the 300-square mile Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act "will open the door to additional federal preservation funding and support from the National Park Service. However, a Wild and Scenic designation would not give the federal government control of the property or prohibit future development."

j.wojtas@theday.com

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