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All About America's Heritage Rivers

Written by: John Maguire

The United States Environmental Protection Agency designated the American Heritage Rivers during the 1990s. This designation had three purposes, one of which was to ensure economic revitalization. It was also a way of ensuring that they would receive special attention and recognition as natural resources. American Heritage Rivers are also designated as such to ensure that they are protected and preserved for their historic and cultural importance.

Establishment of American Heritage Rivers

President Bill Clinton signed an Executive Order in 1997 to create the American Heritage Rivers Protection Program. The selection criteria for rivers to be designated as American Heritage Rivers were developed under the guidance of the Council on Environmental Quality, working  with experts and government representatives to incorporate different perspectives and viewpoints.

Rivers have been designated as American Heritage Rivers based on these qualities:

  • scenic and recreational interests
  • tourism and transportation importance
  • economic development interests
  • agricultural potential
  • manufacturing potential
  • hydropower
  • mining or forest management interests
  • historic and cultural interests
  • environmental interests

Rivers vary in size and setting, and they are located in many different areas that include both urban and rural settings. Some rivers have already been successfully revitalized, while others are in need of restoration work.

Designation Criteria

The full list of designation criteria that guided the selection process is as follows.

  • A river was found to have distinctive or unique agricultural, cultural, economic, historic, natural, recreational, or scenic characteristics.
  • The surrounding community has defined an effective plan of action that addresses the objectives of the American Heritage Rivers.
  • Community support for nomination of a river must be strong and diverse, demonstrated by letters written by private citizens, businesses, elected officials, government entities, and landowners.
  • The community must demonstrate a willingness and ability to create new partnerships and agreements designed to implement plans to meet future goals.

Designated Rivers

On July 30, 1998, President Bill Clinton designated 14 rivers as American Heritage Rivers.

  • Blackstone and Woonasquatucket Rivers in Maine and Rhode Island - These rivers flow through 26 communities and serve as a living symbol of New England history.
  • Connecticut River in Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont - The Connecticut River flows 410 miles between the Canadian border and the coast of Connecticut.
  • Cuyahoga River in Ohio - This 100-mile-long river has been revitalized extensively to bring it back from a point of extreme pollution. It's now a testament to the Clean Water Act.
  • Detroit River in Michigan - The Detroit River is 32 miles long with a history as a transportation waterway, generations ago. Currently, the river serves as the biggest Great Lake port.
  • Hanalei River in Hawaii - This river originates on Mount Waileale on Kauai where it flows for 16 miles before emptying into the Hanalei Bay.
  • Hudson River in New York - The Hudson River covers 315 miles between the Adirondack Mountains and the New York Harbor.
  • Upper Mississippi River in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin - The Mississippi flows mightily through America's heartland where it remains a major waterway.
  • Lower Mississippi River in Louisiana and Tennessee - Snaking through these southern farmlands, the lower Mississippi provides important irrigation before emptying out at the biggest port complex on Earth.
  • New River in North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia - The New River is the oldest river on the continent of North America. It starts in the Blue Ridge Mountains and moves north for 250 miles.
  • Potomac River in Washington, DC, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia - The Potomac served as the boundary between the Union and the Confederacy, and it is an important feature of Washington, DC.
  • Rio Grande in Texas - The Rio Grande serves as the border between the United States and Mexico, and it flows through El Paso, Laredo, and Brownsville, Texas.
  • St. Johns River in Florida - A true lazy river, St. Johns River meanders 310 miles through Florida.
  • Upper Susquehanna and Lackawanna Rivers in Pennsylvania - Flowing through northeastern Pennsylvania, these rivers were used heavily in the coal mining industry, which led to extensive pollution problems.
  • Willamette River in Oregon - Connecting the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific, the Willamette River was waiting for pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail.

Conserving and Protecting Rivers

Scenic rivers in the United States have untold value for their natural and cultural resources. Conserving these rivers not only enables people to enjoy them now, but it ensures that future generations will also have them to enjoy. Rivers provide beautiful scenery, recreation opportunities, homes for plants and animals, clean water, and an important link to the past. Construction, habitation, and industry have taken a negative toll on rivers. Everyone can participate in initiatives to manage and conserve rivers. General water conservation is one of the most important parts of protecting rivers. When out in the wilderness, be mindful about leaving natural areas better than you found them. Always avoid introducing chemicals or waste into rivers as well.