OLR Research Report

December 17, 1999





By: Matthew Ranelli, Associate Attorney

You asked for information regarding the American Heritage Rivers Initiative.


The American Heritage Rivers Initiative was established by Executive Order in 1997 is a voluntary river protection program. It assists river communities working to restore and protect their waterfronts and the rivers that run through them. It is not a traditional loan or grant program, instead it offers an ombudsman-type service to help a community access federal funds, services, and expertise to achieve their locally designed goals. The program's three basic objectives are: (1) natural resource and environmental protection; (2) economic revitalization, and (3) historic and cultural preservation.

The program is voluntary. An advisory committee reviews community-nominated rivers based on criteria established in the executive order and makes recommendations to the President. The program has identified 14 American Heritage Rivers, including the Connecticut River. The nomination deadline was December 10, 1997; the program is no longer accepting nominations.


The American Heritage Rivers Initiative program is a voluntary federal program designed to help local river communities restore and protect their riverways and waterfronts. President Clinton established the program by executive order in 1997 (Ex. Order 97-13061; Attachment 1). The order requires federal agencies to coordinate their plans, programs and resources related to preservation, restoration and protection of rivers in a way that will efficiently support the goals of communities selected to participate in the program. It also allows agencies to identify private resources and to work with states, towns, tribes, and other groups to achieve the locally identified goals.

In essence the program offers an ombudsman's service for local communities to access federal resources. It attempts to match local interest in river protection with existing federal programs and services. The program will also compile a history of all the rivers involved and the projects undertaken that may serve as a model or resource for river communities in general.

The program does not subject the river to any additional federal regulations.

Nominating a River

The program is designed to be initiated and driven by local interest. Communities in coordination with their state, local, or tribal government may nominate their river for the program. The nomination must be sent to the Executive Offices of the President and should be limited to 15 pages. The nomination packet must include:

1. a standard nomination cover sheet,

2. a description of the river area,

3. a description of the notable resources qualities on the area,

4. the community's plan of action, and

5. documentation of public input and support for the plan.

The community plan should be detailed and include at a minimum (1) the community vision for the river, (2) particular projects, (3) a schedule, (4) anticipated and committed resources and sources of support, (5) a definable federal role, (6) citizen involvement, (7) operating procedures and policies, (8) relevant prior accomplishments, (9) potential challenges to the plan, and (10) performance measures. (Nomination packet information is available from the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) American Heritage Rivers website at: The nomination deadline for the initial round was December 10, 1997.

Selection Criteria

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is responsible to assemble an advisory committee of experts from several rivers-related fields to review the nominations and make a recommendation on each to the President. The committee must represent a variety of expertise including: (1) natural, cultural, and historic resources; (2) scenic, environmental, and recreation interests; (3) tourism, transportation, and economic development interests; and (4) affected industries.

The committee must evaluate the nominations based on criteria established by the executive order. It must consider:

1. the river's distinctive or unique characteristics including natural, economic, agricultural, scenic, historic, cultural, or recreational resources;

2. the effectiveness of the community's plan and the extent to which it meets the three major program objectives;

3. the strength and diversity of community support as evidenced by letters and endorsements; and

4. the communities willingness and ability to work with partners and enter agreements to achieve their goals.

The chair of CEQ must ensure that the committee's recommendations represent a variety of stream sizes, geographic locations and settings.

Upon receipt of the committee's recommendations the President may designate American Heritage Rivers. Once a river is designated a “River Navigator” is appointed to serve as a full-time contact person for the project. The navigator assists the community in locating and acquiring resources from existing programs.

The executive order also establishes an interagency committee to review and evaluate activities on the designated rivers and report to the President. It must also develop a process for terminating a community from the program at its own request or because of its failure to act.

American Heritage Rivers Designated

The President has designated 14 American Heritage Rivers. Table 1 lists the rivers and the states they run through. Information on each river including watershed health indicators are available on EPA's website at:

Table 1: American Heritage Rivers



Blackstone and Woonasquatucket Rivers

Massachusetts and Rhode Island

Connecticut River

Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts

Cayahoga River


Detroit River


Hanalei River


Hudson River

New York

Lower Mississippi River

Louisiana and Tennessee

New River

North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia

Rio Grande


Potomac River

District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia

Saint John's River


Upper Mississippi

Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri

Upper Susquehanna and Lackawanna Rivers


Willamette River