AUBURN, CALIF. — The Yellowstone and American Rivers thunder down granite chasms and slip silently through thick, grass meadows. One bears witness to the Blackfeet and Crow Indians it once sustained. The other washed away the tailings of hard-luck gold prospectors and powered the sawmills that built Stockton and Sacramento.
Advocates list these two among the most endangered rivers in the country. Mining interests threaten the Yellowstone, in Wyoming; a dam imperils the American, in central California. Their histories might qualify them, or stretches of them, for classification in a new federal environmental program for rivers. But even if they were listed, that recognition probably would provide no more protection against the projects that could endanger them.
This is a story of a president's effort to reinvent the federal government in an era of shrinking resources and, to borrow the phrase, a river runs through it.
Back in February, President Clinton ordered pertinent federal agencies to create in 90 days the American Heritage Rivers Program. Consistent with the tight-budget tone in Washington, he promised the new program would not expand federal spending. Rather, it would survive on reallocations and more efficient bureaucracies.
But halfway through its conceptualization, the program is raising questions about the effectiveness of smaller, reorganized government. Will the new designation lead to cleaner rivers, or is a "heritage" river just a nice-sounding name for a stretch of water?
Rivers seem a curious focus for one of Mr. Clinton's foremost environmental initiatives at the start of his second term. But program proponents say the initiative is emblematic of Clinton's vision of partnership between the federal government and local communities. It seeks to help cities and towns restore their relationship to those waterways that have historic, recreational, economic, and environmental value.
Localities will design their own programs - whether river cleanup or waterfront development. Washington will help link them to experts nationwide. The designation will impose no new regulations. What reallocated funds it will provide is unclear. But recognition as an American Heritage River, proponents say, ought to bring to a river new funds from corporations and foundations.
"This is about the community deciding what to do," says Ray Clark at the Council on Environmental Quality, a leader of the implementing team. "This flows perfectly from this administration's view of the way government should work."
That's just what worries critics and makes some local river advocates cautious. Previous Clinton environmental measures, they argue, have provided better photo ops than preservation.
"Anything that focuses attention on rivers is helpful," says Joe Marfuggi of Riverfront Recapture, which has been active in restoring public access to the Connecticut River in Hartford. "But it's not clear what this designation means, and it would be helpful if new resources were made available."
Rebecca Wodder of American Rivers, which publishes an annual list of the most endangered rivers, agrees that the new designation will provide little protection against the kinds of development that threaten the American and Yellowstone Rivers. But she embraces the new program.
Existing environmental measures, such as the Clean Water Act, provide the legal framework for fighting mines and dams. But in the past two decades, the biggest problem has increasingly been of an everyday variety: lawn pesticides, agricultural runoff, and excess water use. Clinton's new program may be the best way to address these, she says.
"What we see coming strongly is death by a thousand cuts - complex, disperse decisions by thousands of companies and people," Ms. Wodder says. "The reason American Heritage Rivers is a good strategy is that it links the community's vitality, economic base, and quality of life to a healthy river."
That's a point many cities have already discovered. Portland, Ore., has been cleaning the Willamette since 1938. Hartford, Conn., has put $83 million into sewage treatment and riverfront improvements. Denver Mayor Wellington Webb has allocated $40 million for riverside parks and better summer stream flow on the South Platte.
The experience of St. Paul, Minn., shows the value in such programs. A few years ago the city center was decaying. Suburbs had drawn corporations and giants malls away from downtown. Then the city began touting its riverfront again. Since the 1960s, when the Mississippi was choked in sewage and industrial waste, St. Paul has spent roughly $500 million in cleanup and riverfront restoration.
The master plan puts the river at the center of the city's economic and cultural development. In the past five years, residential and commercial values in and around downtown have soared. "The answer is not finding new federal money," says Patrick Seeb of the St. Paul Riverfront Corp. "We cut ourselves off from our waterfronts with industrial blight. Now we have to reinvent and reclaim our relationship with rivers."