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Had a Good Laugh Yet Today? Congress Wants You to Believe that the Lower Taunton River is “Wild and Scenic”


The Fall River, Massachusetts, skyline and the Braga Memorial Bridge on the “wild and scenic” lower Taunton River. Photo by T.S. Custadio via Wikipedia.

The U.S. House of Representatives has decided that the urban-industrial lower Taunton River in Massachusetts should become part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. And yet, lots of people think that calling this stretch of the Taunton "wild and scenic" is just about the most bizarre thing they've ever heard.

Situated south of the Boston metro area, the 44-mile long Taunton River drains 562 square miles, making it Massachusetts’ second-largest watershed. It is also the longest undammed coastal river in all of New England. If you’d like to review the river’s many virtuous characteristics, visit the home page of the Taunton River Watershed Alliance.

The Taunton is formed by the confluence of the Matfield and Town Rivers in the town of Bridgewater (pop. 25,000). It is the upper part of the river’s watershed that possesses the scenic characteristics that are touted by preservation advocates. We’ll leave it for others to decide if this upper area of the river is “wild.” I don’t know, myself.

The lower Taunton River is a very different matter. This downstream segment has an unmistakable urban-industrial character. It is the blue-collar sort of waterway that prompts geographers to call it a “working river.” Like all of its working river brethren, this one should be treated with respect.

The lower Taunton even has a certain amount of charm. It is charming, that is, if you ignore the bridges and factories and piers and shipyards and houses and roads and urban skyline and other stuff that span the waterway, line its banks, and tell you in no uncertain terms that this river has been tamed.

Look at the photo accompanying this article and tell me if the lower Taunton has a “wild and scenic” character. Have a look at this video clip and tell me if the lower Taunton deserves to be called a “wild and scenic river.” While you’re at it, attend to the political discourse, which is instructive.

So, then, why did the U.S. House of Representatives just pass a bill -- H.R. 415 (Frank) -- declaring that the whole length of the Taunton, including the lower, urban-industrial portion, should be added to the National Wild and Scenic River System? Why is Ted Kennedy pushing a similar bill through the Senate?

Because Weaver's Cove Energy, LLC (a subsidiary of Hess Corporation) wants to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in Fall River (pop. 92,000) on the banks of the lower Taunton. You can get more details at this site.

The proposed site is in a densely populated area that has about 10,000 people living within a radius of one mile. Most locals and state boosters most emphatically do not want an LNG terminal in Fall River, or anywhere else in the vicinity. Everyone is worried about the really bad things that can happen to an LNG terminal. It might blow up by accident, or terrorists might blow it up, or the target might be an LNG carrier in transit nearby. It is NIMBY times ten.

The thing is, if you (wink-wink) extend federal “wild and scenic” protection to the lower Taunton, you can’t put an LNG terminal there. Pretty neat, huh?

I don’t know about you folks, but when our ethically challenged Congress starts using the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in so blatantly political a fashion it makes my flesh crawl. Where is this all going to end? When Congress declares downtown Boston a federally protected wilderness? When Congress declares my gluteus maximus a National Scenic Landmark?

Here’s something else for you to think about. Last year a National Park Service draft report concluded that the lower Taunton River meets eligibility requirements for wild and scenic status. If you don’t think some political pressure was exerted there, I have some oceanfront property in Kansas I’d love to sell you.

Meanwhile, it’s party time over at the Taunton River Watershed Alliance. TRWA wembers and friends are being urged to write their elected officials and thank them for granting federal protection to the entire 40-mile length of the Taunton River -- all the way to the mouth, and including the anything-but-wild-and-scenic lower stretch.

This “end justifies the means“ sort of thinking is familiar to all politically engaged individuals and organizations. Heck, there was a time in my life when I would have made a pact with the Devil himself to save the river bottom hardwood forest of the Congaree from the loggers. (Fortunately, getting Congaree National Park established did not, as far as I know, require anybody to make a Faustian Bargain.)

So you see, I do understand TRWA’s love for the river. I do appreciate TRWA’s elation. And I do congratulate TRWA for working so long and hard in behalf of saving that lower stretch of the river from further debasement.

But make no mistake about it. When you get in bed with a skunk, the odor clings. What is the environmental movement coming to in this country? Is this all we are about – getting the job done, no matter what damage we do to the truth? No matter if we turn the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act into a joke?


If you read the study, the most important thing about the river is how untouched it really is. The study also mainly focuses on the upper part which as undeveloped has some very important Archeological sites. In the end, the study should have only recommended the upper part not the lower.

Bob -- two points on the Taunton:

1. As was covered in a previous thread of yours, in the law, you are either a 'Wild' or a 'Scenic' but not a 'Wild & Scenic' river. It is called the "Wild & Scenic Rivers System," a system that also includes 'Recreational' as a category. What is the proposed category for the Taunton??

2. It would be fun sometimes -- considering the poliitical atmosphere that is created in the NPS Boston office just a few miles away on an issue like this one with a congressman with the seniority and disposition of Barney Frank -- if you could get the NPS staffers who actually floated the river a lot, and met with local advocates and the congressman, to be interviewed in your column.

somebody from NPS Boston like Steve Golden or Bob McIntosh, whoever is the mid-level coordinators or program leaders of the project, the step above the person who writes the report. Many of these studies are generated by the close relationship between these NPS staff in Massachusetts, and the interaction and coaching goes on for years before a proposal gets to Congress. The thinking of a Golden or a McIntosh on how they approach these resources, how they see them as comparable to other rivers in the W & S System, would be very useful for those of us who really would like to know what the emerging philosphy is inside the NPS. Are program criteria applied the same way today, for example, as they were earlier, in their opinion? I am sure there are questions you could ask, and only get an answer like "read the study" from these guys, so some of the broader background and day to day experience would seem valid. And all paid for by you, the taxpayer, so one would think they would love to share their thinking and experience !

The last I heard, the Taunton in MA is the largest source of pollution to Narragansett Bay, the most precious environmental resource in Rhode Island. How 'wild' is that !

Anon, I do understand the provisions of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act; after all, it's been around for forty years. It's just that your first point addresses an issue that is not at all as simple as you seem to imply. The lower Taunton would be designated under the "recreational" classification of the act. That's the technical point. Now here is the IMPORTANT point. The supporters of the bill don't want you to dwell on the fact that the recreational classification will apply! In fact, they don't even want to mention it. They want to leave you to believe, if you will kindly do so, that the lower Taunton is conceptually the same as the upper Taunton -- which is to say, scenic, or better yet, wild and scenic. Elected officials who support Wild and Scenic River status for the Taunton consistently use the terms "wild and scenic" in reference to the whole river, from Bridgewater to tidewater. And why is that? Stop and think about it for a minute. Advocates of federal protection for the river want to keep that LNG plant the hell out of there. Put yourself in the place of those supporters. Given the choice between referring to the lower Taunton as a "recreational river" (honest descriptor) or as a "wild and scenic river" (politically expedient descriptor), which would YOU choose? No contest. I challenge you to use any sources you can find and tell me of even a half-dozen times -- no, make that three -- when a Congressional advocate of federal protection for the lower Taunton has, in a public forum, referred to the object of his affection as a "recreational river." That said, I absolutely love your second point.

It just goes to show you that this country is still up for sale, even by those that we elect to protect us. As long as they can line their own pockets then the "end does justify the means".

No offence, Bob:

but I don't think there is anything in this story or any of the comments showing that elected officials are lining their pockets, regardless of whether we may or may not feel this legislation ought to be passed. Do I miss your point somehow?

These elected officials are trying to block a Liquid Natural Gas plant. If they wanted to line their pocket they WOULD be supporting the plant. LNG plants are hugely importanta to gas companies and those who prefer natural gas over other forms of fossil fuels. Local people fear they can blow up, and take local communities out with them.

My issue above re elected officials was only if the park service's nearby staff, who I am guessing are fans of Rep Frank to boot, were inclined to over-value the locally significant Taunton, and recommend that it be considered qualified for the Wild & Scenic River system.

Again, I don't think there is any money in that, either. We are dealing either with sloppy thinking, or a misuse of environmental laws to block something else, rather than protect recognized natural resource excellence.

I personally believe it is dangerous to misuse environmental laws just to block, because it creates cynicism among the vast public opinion in the political middle, who began to distrust environmentalists when they thought their motives to be perverse. That is what happened with the famous "snail darter" case, or how it was presented, and the damage has not stopped. And it conceivably harms the national park service if the public believes the quality of areas in the Park System (with wild rivers) and/or the Wild & Scenic Rivers System is slipping.

I like your point about the Narragansett Bay.

Will this act, "legal" or not, prevent further pollution??

Will this act help to clean up any polluters??

If the Congress were more honest, they would 1) go after the polluters; and 2) write a law to prevent gas lines in so tightly congested populated area.

Yes, if you have answers to my questions, please send news!

A few points of clarification. 1) I certainly did not mean to imply that supporters of this Wild and Scenic River designation are "lining their pockets." Ron may prefer to speak for himself in this matter, but I think he meant "up for sale" in the broad, generic sense of the term. 2) I agree that curbing water pollution is an important goal, but Wild and Scenic River designation isn't meant for that purpose. Pollution control per se is a separate issue that should be considered in the context of the Clean Water Acts and other existing federal and state water pollution laws and regulations. Whether this legislation is enacted or not, the pollution problems of the river and the bay will have to be addressed. You have to admit, the tremendous media attention attending the river designation is sure to put the area's water pollution problems in sharper focus. 3) Regulating gas lines running through populated areas is a related issue, but not central here. The hazard posed by the proposed LNG terminal is the principal concern, though it's obvious that gas transmission lines are hazardous to some degree.

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