White River and its watershed are vital to Arkansas life and its future.

Those words come from Reed Cripps, assistant state conservationist for easements for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Little Rock, who said he was glad White River and its watershed in Arkansas and Missouri have been named the second “National Blueway.”

The high-profile designation declares White River and its watershed as a model of successful river conservation for the 21st century, he said. Stemming from a partnership between conservation leaders and state and national officials, the designation was designed to rally officials and community members together to work to address modern-day threats and protect the public and working lands adjacent to and near the river, Cripps said.

“We’re working on drought relief, and we’re doing lots of special projects inside the watershed already,” he said. “Most have been down in Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approving a 101,110-acre expansion to help protect valuable, floodplain habitat.”

Running 722 miles from the Ozarks to its mouth in the Mississippi River, the White River drains a watershed that spans 17.8 million acres across 60 counties in Arkansas and Missouri. More than 1 million people rely on the economic impact that tourism, recreation, agriculture and commerce along the river provide to communities within the watershed, state USDA statistics.

The National Blueway designation includes the partnership’s commitment of $22 million to help restore and protect the watershed, Cripps said. Of the $22 million, $13 million is targeted for drought relief caused by last year’s dry weather, he said.

“Now there’s a lot of bottom-land hard-wood restoration, and we’re working on planting trees,” Cripps said. “We’re also working with farmers to reduce the erosion and nutrient loss from agriculture land getting into the river.”

In the upper-basin region of the watershed, officials and communities are working with farmers to improve their management of pasture land, he said.

“This calls for helping them to develop better grazing habits or conditions for the livestock in the area,” Cripps said.

Partners also spend time working with chicken producers to map out better, safer ways to handling waste material and making sure waste doesn’t flow into streams and rivers, he said. The partnership, so far, has seen private, and public landowners in the watershed already conserve more than 3.2 million acres of their land, which benefits wildlife and people alike, Cripps said.

“Boosting tourism is part of this plan,” he said. “The Arkansas Department of Tourism and the Arkansas Canoe Club are among the partners, and they’re making sure the public has access to all of the public lands for recreational use inside the watershed.

“And we’re interested in making sure the wildlife management areas that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission manage are optimized to bring in tourism, in terms of hunters and those fishing,” Cripps added.

Dan Ashe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director, called White River a special feature of the region and said the partnership will help ensure individuals can hunt, fish, hike, paddle and enjoy the watershed for decades to come.

White River and its watershed were nominated for the National-Blueway designation by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of the Interior, the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and 19 other agencies and groups.

“We’re hoping to bring some additional recognition to the watershed,” Cripps said. “Hopefully, with that, by raising the status of White River and its watershed, that can bring additional funds to do additional conservation projects.” ___


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Photo credit: White River in Arkansas, now a "National Blueway", only the second such designation in U.S. Linda Tanner / Flickr.com

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