American Heritage Rivers: An Idea Whose Time Has Come
The work of reconnecting communities to the Mississippi River has parallels across the country, indeed, around the world. In the United States, a group of 14 rivers were designated “American Heritage Rivers” in 1998. The Mississippi has two designations, for the Upper and the Lower, to go with other significant rivers such as the Hudson, the New, the Cuyahoga, and the St. Johns. American Heritage Rivers vary widely in size from the largest river on the continent (the Mississippi) to one of the smallest in the country (the Hanalei, in Hawaii).
We’ll have more to say in future posts about the American Heritage River program, but to start with the basics, each designated river proposed a work plan consisting of actions in three areas: environmental protection, heritage preservation, and community development. The river communities–for the program was about river communities, which often, but not always, meant local governments–worked with a federal official known as a “river navigator” to identify opportunities for funding and program support, assistance with planning, and opportunities to enhance local capacity to achieve the goals of the work plans.
The American Heritage River program celebrated its tenth year last year, and is making every effort to solidify and expand on the success stories that have been written across the country. The tricky part is combining community development, environmental protection, and heritage preservation into a package that truly enhances the community and the river that it depends on. We haven’t always seen things in this integrated manner, but if we’re going to thrive on our rivers for the next century or more, we’re going to have to. From the Hanalei to the Hudson, American Heritage Rivers are showing the way forward.