Reports to Property Owners on Scenic Rivers

Representative Dan Howell filed HB0074, a Bill which purports to remove an “obsolete” reporting requirement for the Commissioner of the Department of Environment and Conservation to cooperate, educate, and inform owners of property located near a scenic river. Howell represents District 22, whose border consists of a significant portion of the headwaters of the Tennessee River. However, the specific law he is changing pertains to the Duck River, which flows through seven Middle Tennessee counties, far away from Rep. Howell’s District in East Tennessee. The Duck is the longest river located entirely within Tennessee and is the most biologically diverse river in North America. Those familiar with its course can attest to the natural beauty found along its banks and falls.

In 1998 Tennessee became the second state to establish a river conservation program with the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Act. Although Wisconsin was first, Tennessee’s program was far more comprehensive, being based on the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and funded by the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. The law garnered local support from Liane and William Russell of Oak Ridge, Bob Miller and other founders of the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, the Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, Representative Bill Pope and Governors Buford Ellington and Winfield Dunn. Unfortunately, opposition soon formed among many of the landowners whose property was adjacent to these designated scenic rivers, in the time-honored tradition of Americans being opposed to the government meddling with their property. The state and federal planners soon learned that they needed to build more local support through better communication with the immediate neighbors of our rivers, in order for their conservation to truly be successful. Eventually this effort led to a great deal of success, as the numerous local river protection projects that now exist can attest. The State and federal programs now provide funding, support, and management for the conservation of our scenic rivers, a resource valued and enjoyed by all Tennesseans and tourists lucky enough to experience it.

Despite opening up three different Titles of the State Code, Howell’s Bill as filed deletes the current law at Tenn. Code Ann. 11-13-108(b)(2). Paragraphs (a) establishes the rules for determining the boundaries of a river or segment of river that is included in the state scenic rivers program, whereas paragraph (b)(1) creates a program of cooperative effort between the Commissioner of Environment and Conservation and local landowners, at the time the Duck River was designated a scenic river, notably requiring the Commissioner to obtain notarized consent from private landowners before establishing the boundaries. (b)(2) required the Commissioner to issue a report to the Senate Energy & Environment Committee and House Conservation & Environment Committee (which no longer exists) on the details of its cooperative efforts with landowners, and required the Department to only establish boundaries on the river based upon the consent of the owner of any affected private lands. Howell’s Bill deletes the reporting requirement entirely, and retains only the requirement of consent from the owners of any affected private lands.

Unfortunately due to the limited amount of archived information online from the 104th General Assembly, I was unable to locate this report from 2005, although a trip to the State Archives might be fruitful for those of you who are curious about its details. It is unclear whether Howell considers this part “obsolete” because the report has already been made and the Duck River has already received its designation, or because the applicable House Committee no longer exists, or because the General Assembly is uninterested in receiving such reports from the Commissioner on its efforts in working with local communities to establish scenic rivers. Frankly it’s unlikely that the program will be expanded any further, due to a combination of disinterest from lawmakers in identifying more conservation sites and an expected diminishing of federal funds as a new federal Administration dismantles environmental protections.