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US River Project Polarizes West

Stretching from the snow-capped summits of the Rocky Mountains to the prairies of North Dakota, the Yellowstone River is a piece of living history.

Flush with the tales of native Americans, Lewis and Clark, and early pioneers, the Yellowstone is one of the last great untamed rivers. In fact, it is the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states.

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But none of that is reason enough to take federal money for its protection. Or at least that's what some here are saying as the Clinton administration gears up its American Heritage Rivers project.

The initiative is intended to celebrate 10 American waterways by offering federal help to the communities that voluntarily participate. But here, where talk of government conspiracies thrives among a small but significant segment of the population, the plan has emerged as the latest poster child of Big Brother. It is a conflict that highlights the depth of antigovernment sentiment in some parts of the West and lays bare the gulf separating environmentalists and conservatives.

"This is an assault to private property rights, states rights, and Western values," said Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R) of Idaho recently. "The very designation creates yet another obstacle, legal or not, and yet another tool for the use by environmental extremists to stop the wise use of our lands."

Next month, the first pilot rivers will be announced, potentially resulting in millions of dollars in federal aid that could be used for projects such as wetland protection and museums. Yet Rep. Rick Hill (R) of Montana recently told Mr. Clinton that such benevolence was unwanted in his state, citing concerns over private property and water rights. Other legislators and farm groups have lined up against state participation as well.

Meanwhile, Representative Chenoweth has proffered support for a lawsuit to kill the program. Like Representative Hill, she refuses to allow Idaho rivers to be considered and claims the program is unconstitutional, characterizing it as a thinly veiled attempt to undermine citizen liberties.

But some observers think there must be something more to the resistance. "It is just incomprehensible why there has arisen some opposition to this program which is 100 percent voluntary," says Kathleen McGinty, who heads the Council on Environmental Quality. "There seems to be some unspoken issue that has not yet been brought to the surface."

T.H. Watkins, who holds the Wallace Stegner chair at Montana State University, has an idea of what that the issue might be: Bill Clinton. "The opposition seems to be purely a cynical political response," he says. "It's based on the supposition that if Clinton is involved it must be bad."

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Ironically, American Heritage Rivers was created to dispel the perception of heavy-handed government by subordinating federal funds to local interests. But the lack of specifics about how that will happen has led to suspicion, Ms. McGinty says.

Similar to debates over issues such as the Endangered Species Act, gun control, school prayer, and affirmative action, the rivers plan has galvanized the "far right fringe" while polarizing a large block of Montanans who had previously considered themselves moderate, says Ken Toole of the Montana Human Rights Network.

"Montana provides a good lens for viewing the antipathy that states rights supporters direct at the federal government," Mr. Toole adds. "But I don't think the climate here is more hostile than anywhere else in the West. Montana just has a more notorious reputation."

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