Initiative Sells Out Local Control for Santa Clara River

<i> Howard P. "Buck" McKeon is a Republican congressman representing the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys and a portion of the San Fernando Valley</i>

“I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help.”

Most people recognize that line as a joke, since when the federal government gets involved in something, even to offer “assistance,” it usually messes things up.

This fact ought to be remembered by citizens who are concerned by news media reports regarding a June 3 letter I wrote opposing the Santa Clara River’s inclusion in President Clinton’s American Heritage Rivers Initiative.

On the surface, the program looks like a good thing. Newspaper stories portrayed it as appointing a federal official to “assist” in obtaining funds for preserving and protecting the Santa Clara River.


In fact, if this had come before me when I was on the Santa Clarita City Council in 1987-1992, I probably would have favored it. That’s because back then, I did not realize how disastrous it is when the federal government uses a seemingly benign assistance role to impose its heavy-handed bureaucracy over a local matter.

I’d like to explain the problems with the American Heritage Rivers Initiative and why the people of the 25th Congressional District are better off without it.

First, let’s look at what the American Heritage Rivers program is, and what it is not. It is an executive order issued by Clinton that creates a committee to select 10 American Heritage Rivers and then requires all executive agencies to, in essence, offer assistance to communities involved in river conservation.

Notice that no funding for any specific river projects would be provided. The American Heritage Rivers Initiative is not a program that provides any specific assistance whatsoever. In fact, the entire program is unfunded. It provides no additional environmental protections.


The executive order is written so vaguely that it is impossible to determine in advance what this federal assistance will be. To a federal bureaucrat, assistance could be anything from making money available for a trail near the river to banning all development within 100 miles of a river. Don’t think that’s an exaggeration. There is no limit to the unreasonableness of federal bureaucrats once they get a whiff of power.

The Times on June 15 ran an excellent article that detailed how a federal bureaucrat used the Endangered Species Act to propose shutting down all traffic on Interstate 10 in San Bernardino during August to preserve the mating habitat of an endangered, inch-long fly. We’re talking about a big ugly fly here, not a grizzly bear or a bald eagle.

The fact is the American Heritage River Initiative is simply an open-ended invitation for the federal government to become involved in--and eventually take the lead role and dominate--river management.

Most of us, myself included, are in favor of preserving the environment, including our rivers. That’s why I authored legislation that killed plans for a 190-million-ton trash dump in Elsmere Canyon. That’s why I am leading the effort to provide $5 million in federal funds to improve the Pacific Crest Trail, including $2.5 million for acquiring land in Agua Dulce for it.


If there is federal funding available to preserve the Santa Clara River in an appropriate way, I will fight to obtain it. Our state legislators are similarly equipped to obtain state money if some is available. Between us, we can obtain whatever assistance the American Heritage Rivers Initiative would provide.

By contrast, the American Heritage Rivers Initiative, as defined, would force us to simply trust Clinton. This is a president whose environmental record has been very hostile to private property rights and who has consistently used shaky, politically driven science to support his desired conclusion. He is asking us to trust the federal government to assist us without any definition of what this assistance will be and without any checks and balances.

Those who favor naming the Santa Clara to the Clinton initiative are essentially asking us to open the door to large-scale federal involvement in local river issues in exchange for--what?

Even the Clinton initiative’s supporters acknowledge that it provides absolutely zero in terms of money or new environmental protections. In other words, we get zero and we give up potentially plenty. Do the math: This deal is a loser.


I’m all for saving our nation’s waterways, including the Santa Clara, but we don’t need to sell local control down the river to do it.