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.
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.
For example, a recent boom in hydroelectric power development, spurred by a combination of federal tax breaks and subsidies enacted by Congress in the wake of the 1979 oil crisis, has meant thousands of proposals to build dams for electric power generation. Frequently, the dramatic rapids that make certain rivers so picturesque are what also make a waterway perfect for hydroelectric generation.
As a result, experts say there may not be a wide range of rivers to choose from that are both in a natural state along their entire length and are scenic enough to warrant the distinction of being labeled a national park.
``To look for an unspoiled system in 1985 is going to be as tough as getting the [political] support for it,'' says Mr. Lienisch of the parks association. ``It may even be more so.''
In fact, the difficulties involved with finding the right river may be compounded by the political realities that dog any public-lands issue. Experts who deal with federal land issues say that shorter rivers, which cross through few congressional districts, would have a better shot at attaining park status than longer ones. The same applies for rivers that start 20 or 30 miles from a coast, as opposed to waterways deep in the American heartland. Likewise, rivers in mountainous areas would be
easier to designate as parks than those in sweeping and fertile valleys.
Many river experts believe that the most likely sites for the new park lie in the uncongested expanses of the Western states, particularly along the coastal areas of northern California, Oregon, and Washington State.
The federal government already owns vast tracts of land in this region, including many national parks, so conservationists speculate that a new addition to federal landholdings in the shape of yet another national park could run into significant local opposition.
On the other hand, a state such as Delaware, which has no national park, might well be delighted to play host to the nation's first wild-river park. But river conservationists interviewed by the Monitor could not think of a significant river in Delaware that would meet Mott's criteria.
The search over the coming months may yield some surprises, however. The Park Service's recreational planning department has begun to scrutinize a 1982 survey of about 3,000 US rivers (excluding Montana) for possible candidates. Vern Collins, an official with the department, reports the survey indicates Alabama alone has four rivers that could be suitable.
Florida State University ecologist Robert Livingstone believes there are a number of smaller coastal rivers in western Florida that could serve as the basis of a wild-river national park.
Mott hopes to have a selection of eligible rivers to choose from by the end of the year. One possible candidate has already been mentioned to him: the Mattole River, which snakes for 67 miles through Humboldt and Mendocino Counties off the northern California coast.
Mott says he needs suggestions from as many people as possible. ``Now that the word is getting out, people will start thinking about this,'' he says. Right now, Mott envisions only one Wild River National Park. Eventually, he says, given public support and the political will, there could be several such parks.
First of two articles on proposed national parks.