Dear EarthTalk: The federal government recently designated the Connecticut River watershed as the nation's first "National Blueway." What is a National Blueway and does such a designation come with any funding for conservation or other purposes? -- Jackie Minor, via e-mail

In May 2012 the Obama administration did indeed designate the Connecticut River and its 7.2 million-acre watershed as the first segment of a new National Blueways System, created to help conserve natural amenities and wildlife habitat and to preserve or enhance healthy recreational opportunities within significant river systems across the country.

The National Blueways program is part of the larger America's Great Outdoors Initiative created by the White House to establish a community-driven conservation and recreation agenda for the 21st century. Large blueways such as the Connecticut River watershed are extremely important not only as nurseries for biodiversity and filtration systems for fresh water supplies, but also as outdoor recreational outlets for millions of all-too-cooped-up Americans.

The Connecticut River watershed is a fitting first addition to the National Blueways program given its ecological, cultural and recreational importance to millions of Americans along its 410-mile run from the peaks of Vermont along the Canadian border through New Hampshire and Massachusetts to Connecticut, where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Some 2.4 million people across almost 400 communities live within the Connecticut River's watershed. The nonprofit Trust for Public Land estimates that 1.4 million of those residents enjoy the watershed's natural beauty and wildlife and contribute upwards of $1 billion dollars to local economies accordingly each year.

"The Connecticut River Watershed is a model for how communities can integrate their land and water stewardship efforts with an emphasis on `source-to-sea' watershed conservation," said Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar upon announcing the new designation.

According to the U.S. Department of Interior, the National Blueway designation "differs from existing federal designations for rivers (e.g., Wild and Scenic), which generally cover only a segment of a river and a narrow band of the riparian corridor." In contrast, a National Blueway includes the entire river from "source to sea" as well as the river's watershed.

A National Blueway designation doesn't establish any new protections for the watersheds in question, but it does open the door to some federal support for existing and/or new local and regional conservation, recreation and restoration projects. In the case of the Connecticut River, the new designation will help by improving coordination between local/regional planning entities and federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The designation should also mean more funding for trail building and forest restoration projects.

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It's unclear yet when other U.S. watersheds will be designated under the Blueways program, but there are certainly dozens if not hundreds across the country that could benefit from inclusion.

Contact: America's Great Outdoors Initiative,

Dear EarthTalk: Given that the presidential election is just around the corner, what can you tell me about each candidate's environmental track record and positions? -- Jane Miller, Chicago

Just because the environment is getting short shrift this election season due to our nation's lingering economic woes doesn't mean that candidates Obama and Romney can ignore the issue.

Environmentalists have cheered several of President Obama's moves during his first term, including: passage of the Recovery Act and its funding for environmental and habitat restoration and water quality improvements; passage of the first comprehensive National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, the Coasts and the Great Lakes; and the signing of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, which expanded land protections and water conservation across 2 million acres of federal wilderness.

Obama also formed the Partnership for Sustainable Communities to bring together federal agencies to help communities nationwide improve access to affordable housing and increase low-cost transportation options while protecting the environment. He also established new rules to reduce the negative impacts of mountain-top removal coal mining, set historic standards limiting greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, made substantial investments in clean energy, proposed the first-ever carbon pollution limits for new fossil-fuel-fired power plants, and reduced carbon emissions within the federal government.

On the downside, green leaders dismay Obama's lack of follow-through on a 2008 campaign promise to label genetically modified foods so that consumers know what they are getting when they buy corn, sugar or breakfast cereal. Also, a 2011 Obama decision to deregulate the planting of genetically modified alfalfa and sugar beets incensed organic farmers and environmental leaders. Greens also worry about Obama's enthusiasm for an "all-of-the-above" energy policy that includes the practice of hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") to access natural gas in shale beds under wide swaths of the northeast and western U.S.

If re-elected, Obama would no doubt work to expand U.S. leadership on setting emissions limits in unison with other nations, and has pledged to continue to reduce our dependence on oil so as to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Conservationists are also hopeful that Obama will set aside threatened lands for protection from development as both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did soon before leaving the White House.

While Mitt Romney doesn't have much of an environmental track record from his days as Massachusetts' governor, he did get kudos for being open minded to both regulatory and market-based policy ideas. He also supported a 2003 northeastern states agreement to reduce carbon emissions from power plants via a regional cap-and-trade emissions reduction plan. But in 2005 Romney abruptly pulled Massachusetts out of the plan, telling reporters that it didn't protect businesses and consumers from increased energy costs.

Romney is now pitching an energy plan that embraces all the options, including fossil fuels, nuclear energy and renewables. But he recently told that he opposes any kind of carbon tax or cap-and-trade system "that would handicap the American economy and drive manufacturing jobs away," adding that economic growth and technological innovation, "not economy-suppressing regulation," are key to protecting the environment in the long run.

Contacts: Mitt Romney: Energy,; Barack Obama: Environment,;,

EarthTalk is by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of E -- The Environmental Magazine ( Send questions to