Parks director Mott starts search for rivers unspoiled by man. Plan for new national park surprises conservationists
Pity Old Man River, on whose metaphorical back traveled the fortunes of a growing nation. For starters, the Mississippi River, as the old man is less poetically known, has been dammed, dredged, and rechanneled. That, too, has been the fate of nearly every waterway coursing through the continental United States.Skip to next paragraph
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But at least one completely untamed river in the Lower 48 may yet escape civilization's heavy thumbprint. Through various speeches and newspaper interviews over the past few weeks, National Parks Service director William Penn Mott Jr. has quietly spread the word that he would like to establish a Wild River National Park. His idea is to find a river that has escaped development and declare it a national park, thus leaving the surrounding area off limits to development.
The park, which requires congressional approval, would give people a firsthand opportunity to see a type of vanishing natural resource that once played a profound role in the nation's development, he says.
``We've got parks for everything else -- Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Mesa Verde, now we're talking about one for tallgrass prairie -- so why not set one up for a river so people can see what one looked like before man came along?'' Mr. Mott says.
The proposal has caught members of the environmental community almost completely off guard. Accustomed as they are to battling Reagan administration efforts to allow industrial development on federal lands, environmentalists say they did not expect an administration official to suggest a major additon to the national parks system, much less one they had never even asked for. This latest idea follows an earlier proposal to establish a Tallgrass Prairie National Park. (See tomorrow's article.)
Indeed, the surprise with which conservationists are greeting the proposal may say as much about the current state of the US environmental movement as it does about any previous Reagan administration intransigence over public-lands issues.
``Most of us tend to focus on specific landscapes rather than think about broad concepts,'' says William Lienisch, a resource specialist with the National Parks and Conservation Association. ``Mott has brought in with him a fresh perspective.''
The proposal comes at a time when the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, which protects unspoiled river segments from development, is widely seen by environmentalists as languishing. The Reagan administration submitted 24 river case studies to Congress on April 27, but only three were suggested as candidates for wild and scenic designation -- a proportion that drew protests from the environmental community.
So Mott's idea has captured the imagination of river conservationists and is touching off a scramble to find a list of suitable candidates.
Dozens of rivers in Alaska remain strangers to human activity along their entire length. They are out of the running, however, as Mott wants the wild-river park to be situated in one of the Lower 48 states; that way, he says, it will be more easily accessible to most Americans.
Yet that requirement will just as surely make the search more difficult. Few untouched rivers remain in the continental US, the experts say. And the development that has affected so many rivers may be accelerating.
``There is no question that protection of rivers is one of the toughest problems faced in conservation today,'' says University of Virginia ecologist James Odum.