After decades, the Housatonic River is officially 'Wild and Scenic'
From its source in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the Housatonic River runs south through some of the state’s most beautiful landscapes, past mills and farms, and alongside the Appalachian Trail.
I’m sitting on the riverbank in West Cornwall, next to its historic covered bridge, with William Tingley. He’s the chairman of the Housatonic River Commission. We’re watching the river rush by.
“We are looking at some class-two whitewater rapids right here,” William said. “Lots of people have made this journey down here and it's a beautiful section of the river.”
William’s a paddler. He knows the Housatonic very well — he said he’s done half a dozen trips, as he calls it, source-to-Sound — from up in Massachusetts where it empties out into the Long Island Sound between Stratford and Milford, Connecticut.
The new Wild and Scenic designation covers the northern half of the river’s run through Connecticut — from the Massachusetts line to the town of New Milford.
“There are literally miles when you're on the river where you really don't see anything, except what might have been there at the beginning,” William said. “And so it's really quite inspiring to realize that we have that kind of beauty and, and purity of the land itself — considering how close we are to the metropolis, it's pretty remarkable.”
It hasn’t always been like this.
“When I first moved into this area 50-odd years ago, people were afraid of the river, there wasn't a lot of use of the river,” William said. “It is sort of a wild, powerful entity and people didn't necessarily understand that or how to use it. Certainly as a fishing spot, particularly fly fishing, it's been used for many, many years, and people have known how to manage themselves in the river. And with knowledge and experience, obviously, it's something that's tremendously enjoyable.”
In past decades, the hydroelectric dam in nearby Great Falls would pool the river’s water, then release it — meaning there’d be next to no water at some times, then a big flow all at once.
“If you came by in the middle of a time when the river wasn't running, it was sort of a large ditch,” William said. “And it was pretty distressing. Was killing fish, and other life in the river was just hugely stressed by what they were doing. The water would heat up as it was stored, so you didn't have the cool places for fish to to refuge, except around feeder streams and stuff. So it was really a kind of a desperate situation.”
And then there was the litter.
“You know, when I first started paddling boats up and down this river, people were still throwing couches over the bank, and refrigerators, and anything else like that,” William said. “And we had one rapid downstream that we called ‘Refrigerator Rapids,’ because there were several refrigerators in the water.”
Conservationists wanted to get the Housatonic on the government’s list of Wild and Scenic rivers. They’re recognized for their — well, scenic value, for their cultural and environmental value, for recreation. There are more than 200 across the country, mostly out west. The designation comes with a chance for federal funding and other perks to help preserve them.
Housatonic conservationists have been courting the feds for nearly half a century since 1978. William was there.
“I was guiding a couple of guys from the Department of Interior for three or four days,” he said. “And they were looking at the river with that thought in mind of possibly including it in Wild and Scenic. I just happened to be the guy that did that. They were pretty cool guys, we had a few sodas at the end of the day and they appreciated how really beautiful this section of river was.”
The Housatonic is a lot less remote than many other Wild and Scenic rivers. The 41-mile stretch of river runs through seven towns in northwest Connecticut. Every town had to get on board to earn the designation.
“I think that's the most remarkable to me, just what an amazing section of river this is in such a close proximity to a lot of people,” William said. “We still have a lot of things to worry about. There's a lot of grandfathered zoning that goes back decades that would allow people to build houses along the river and to develop. And we're seeing an increased amount of real estate ads saying ‘waterfront property’ you know, which is a big seller. And so we have to be pretty vigilant about what's going on there.”
The Wild and Scenic designation also can help cut back on litter — to make sure there’s no return to the days of ‘Refrigerator Rapids.’ William wants to make sure someone’s keeping an eye on how people are using the river. And more people are using the river these days.
“On weekends it can get, you're probably aware, all of the outdoor recreation has increased tremendously since the pandemic started,” William said. “People are outside like never before, which is great. And we want that, you know, there's nothing better than people getting to know the river and the outdoors for their health, their mental health, their physical health, and the health of the planet. But we do realize that we have to be very proactive in terms of getting some sustainable access and for all users, which include fishermen, canoeists and kayakers, hikers, people that just want to come by the river and dangle their feet and cool off a little bit, and that sort of thing.”
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