Congress officially sends President public lands package that reauthorizes LWCF & designates RI rivers as “wild and scenic”

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, the U.S. Senate put the final stamp on a bipartisan public lands package to protect more than 1.3 million acres, 2,600 miles of new national trails, and 367 miles of new scenic rivers, including U.S Senator Jack Reed’s (D-RI) Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Wild and Scenic River Act.

During an enrollment ceremony today, the bill, which passed the Senate 92-8 on February 12 and was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives 363-62 on February 26, was officially named “The John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act.”  The bipartisan bill permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which the late Congressman John Dingell (D-MI) strongly supported.

The John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act now goes directly to the White House so it may be signed into law by the President.  Under the Constitution, the President has 10 days (excluding Sundays) to sign or veto the bill.

Senators Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who helped pass the bill, applauded the decision to name it after Chairman Dingell and say it will support public lands, increase opportunities for outdoor recreation, and help preserve open spaces nationwide, including in Rhode Island.

“This is a fitting tribute to Chairman Dingell, whom I served with in the House.  The Land and Water Conservation Fund helps communities across Rhode Island and nationwide develop new outdoor recreational facilities and boost locally-driven conservation efforts.  Permanently authorizing the program will provide more opportunities for Rhode Islanders to get outside and enjoy the natural beauty of our state,” said Senator Reed, a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior & Environment, who helped include LWCF funds in the 2019 Consolidated Appropriations Act.  “Thanks to federal LWCF funds, we have invested more than $72.9 million over the years to protect Rhode Island’s coastlines, beaches, recreation opportunities, and open spaces.”       

The National Park Service administers the Land and Water Conservation Fund state grant program.  The primary source of revenue for the LWCF is from federal offshore oil and gas lease revenues.

At the state level, the LWCF program is administered by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).   The state awards the federal funds through a competitive process.

The John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act also includes Senator Reed’s language to designate river segments within the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.  The legislation, cosponsored by U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, would establish Rhode Island’s first ever Wild and Scenic river system and provide access to federal funding to protect and maintain the rivers of this watershed for recreation, fisheries, and water quality preservation.

“These stretches of rivers support a lot of wildlife and they are critical to our communities.  Securing the federal “wild and scenic” designation is a win for Rhode Island and will help preserve the entire watershed and help more federal conservation funds flow to the state,” said Senator Reed, the author of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Wild and Scenic River Act (S. 45).

“Rhode Island is on the cusp of securing its very first Wild and Scenic Area, thanks to the advocacy of Senator Reed and Congressman Langevin, whose district is largely covered by the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed,” said Senator Whitehouse.  “This special status will help protect the pristine rivers and tributaries of southwestern Rhode Island for generations to come.” 

A river’s classification as “wild” means there is little development in surrounding areas and “scenic” means it is still largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads.

Designating these segments of the 300-square mile Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA) will open the door to additional federal preservation funding and support from the National Park Service.  However, a Wild and Scenic designation would not give the federal government control of the property or prohibit future development.

The legislation includes parts of seven rivers: the Beaver, Chipuxet, Green Fall-Ashaway, Queen-Usquepaugh, Pawcatuck, Shunock, and Wood rivers in Rhode Island and Connecticut, under WSRA protections, further preserving Southern New England’s natural beauty.  Following more than three years of intense study, the bill formally recognizes the recreational, natural, and historical qualities of these river segments, provides access to federal resources, and promotes strong partnerships for their restoration and protection.

In 2012, Senator Reed introduced the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Protection Act to study these rivers for inclusion in the National Wild Scenic River System and successfully had that bill included in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Last May, Reed, Whitehouse, Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI), and Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) joined with the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association and other local stakeholders to mark the completion of the Wood Pawcatuck Watershed Stewardship Plan to preserve the rivers.  The plan was developed in consultation with town-appointed representatives from Charlestown, Exeter, Hopkinton, North Kingstown, Richmond, South Kingstown, Westerly, and West Greenwich in Rhode Island and North Stonington, Sterling, Stonington, and Voluntown in Connecticut.  The bi-state study committee also included partners from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM), the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP), the Wood Pawcatuck Watershed Association (WPWA), Save the Bay, The Nature Conservancy, and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.  Technical assistance for the study was provided by the National Park Service.

To date, over 200 rivers in 40 states across the country have been accepted into the National Wild Scenic River System, but until now, none in Rhode Island had received the designation.