Editor’s note: This article is by Tom Slayton of Montpelier, editor emeritus of Vermont Life magazine.
[S]HELDON – A flotilla of more than 25 canoes and kayaks paddled down the Missisquoi River on Saturday to celebrate its designation, along with its tributary, the Trout River, as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system.
It was a day of celebration that capped several years of grassroots work to obtain the designation.
The river sparkled in the June sunlight and a light breeze rippled its surface as the paddlecraft made their way downstream. The brightly colored boats spread out over a quarter-mile of the Missisquoi, at times filling it from shore to shore.
The Missisquoi and Trout are the first two waterways in Vermont to win federal designation as National Wild and Scenic Rivers. That fact, and the beautiful late-spring day helped make the celebratory paddle trip a joyous affair. People chatted and laughed as their small craft swooped around turns and bounced through the river’s splashing riffles.
The celebration was held on National Trails Day, and coincided with the 15th anniversary of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, which follows the Missisquoi for its entire length.
Designation of the two rivers was a significant victory for Franklin and Orleans counties. It will bring between $70,000 and $80,000 in conservation funds to the two watersheds annually. The designation also entitles local people to technical and financial assistance in river-related projects, and it will give the two rivers national recognition as outstanding recreational waters.
But it was not easily won. It took more than eight years of hard work, worry, meetings and setbacks before Congress approved the designation late last year. There was scattered opposition, usually based on distrust of the federal government. The town of Lowell, at the headwaters of the Trout River, voted against the designation. But support for the designation passed easily in eight other towns along the watersheds.
The fact that the committee seeking the designation consisted of locally appointed people played a big part in the measure’s approval.
“This is a story of cooperation and collaboration,” said Shana Stewart Deeds, coordinator of the lengthy study that led to the designation of the two rivers. “When you’re working on something that involves getting several pieces of legislation through Congress, you’d better be in it for the long haul.”
The three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation worked cooperatively to get the legislation passed. But they made it clear that the real key to the project’s success was the local organizing, study and education that had gone on in local towns along the two watersheds.
“This is how it should be done; this is a textbook model for local citizen action,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., at a meeting in Sheldon before the canoe trip began. “We’re on a stall in Washington right now. But you are showing us that you don’t have wait. You can lead and you can act.”
Because it was a fine spring day, the meeting was held outside. The approximately 75 people who attended had a view of the Missisquoi Valley’s broad farm fields, green with new hay and corn, and in the distance, Jay Peak and the main range of the Green Mountains.
The upper Missisquoi Valley is one of the most unspoiled and scenic areas in Vermont, a fact which helped win the designation for the two rivers. Nevertheless, the struggle for the designation was a long and arduous process. It took many people from the eight towns involved, many meetings with town officials throughout both watersheds, much coordination among the various towns, and much trust and good faith among all the parties.
Jacques Couture, a Westfield selectman and dairy farmer, recalled the day some six years ago when John Little of Montgomery, one of the originators of the project, came to visit with him in his barn. Little explained the project and asked for Couture’s support.
“I came into this with some trepidation, but it was short-lived,” Couture said. “It was pretty evident from the beginning that this was not ‘thou shalt not’ from above. It was a local effort.”
Couture said the federal designation was widely supported because it was a recognition of how important the rivers have become to the people of Franklin and Orleans counties. He hopes that it will help the region develop economically as a recreation center. But also, he said, it will give local people a chance to learn about and celebrate the rivers.
“This designation is a celebration of two jewels that we have here,” he said. “Regardless of the money, it’s a good thing.”
Little, a science teacher at nearby North Country Union High School, was a longtime leader of the Missisquoi River Basin Association, a conservation group that, among other projects, has planted more than 20,000 trees along the banks of the river in the past two decades. He had attended a national river conference in 2007 at which the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was explained.
“The thing that caught my attention was that you get federal funding annually,” he said. “They told us all you have to do is go to your town selectboards and get letters of support.”
It all sounded simple, but in fact, years of coordination and meetings were required. Then bills establishing the designation and appropriating the money had to be passed by a deeply divided U.S. Congress. That process took another two years. The U.S. House passed the legislation in 2014. The Senate followed suit last December.
Tom Berry, an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the final approval passed the Senate as part of the defense budget.
Little said he couldn’t fully believe that the measure had passed until he received a copy of that enormous budget.
“It was 1,600 pages long,” Little recalled. “But there was our designation, on page 1,400-and-something.”
Like Welch, Berry commended the citizen groups in eight communities that led the way to getting the designation of the two rivers approved. In reference to the conservation benefits the Missisquoi and Trout Rivers will receive, he added:
“This is forever. This is a great day.”