It may not be quite as busy as the Interstate Highway System on Memorial Day weekend, but this week America christened another kind of interstate transportation network — even though it has existed for thousands of years.

The National Blueways System, formally created Thursday by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, aims to protect and popularize the country's rivers by taking a holistic approach to conservation. Unlike the current patchwork of federal protections, which typically only cover certain segments of a river, a national blueway will include the entire river "from source to sea," as well as its surrounding watershed.

Salazar kicked off the program in Hartford, Conn., giving him an apt backdrop for another announcement: The 410-mile Connecticut River will become America's first national blueway, along with its 7.2 million-acre watershed (see map below) that stretches into Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

"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," Salazar said Thursday at Hartford's Riverside Park. "I am pleased to recognize the Connecticut River and its watershed with the first National Blueway designation as we seek to fulfill President Obama's vision for healthy and accessible rivers that are the lifeblood of our communities and power our economies."


CONNECT-ICUT: The Connecticut River watershed, shaded in green above, stretches into four states and runs from the U.S.-Canada border into Long Island Sound. (Image: U.S. Geological Survey)

Blueways are part of the America's Great Outdoors Initiative, an attempt by the Obama administration to set up "a community-driven conservation and recreation agenda for the 21st century." Salazar listed three basic aspects of that agenda Thursday: protecting and restoring lands of national signficance, building a new generation of urban parks, and increasing the national focus on rivers. Joining with pre-existing projects in these areas demonstrates "how the federal family can be an effective conservation partner for community-led efforts," he said.

Blueway designation won't necessarily bring any federal funds to a river. Instead, it's meant to unify ongoing efforts into a more cohesive strategy, one that preserves U.S. rivers as a kind of natural interstate corridor for both people and wildlife. The Connecticut River National Blueway, for example, will build on previous work by more than 40 organizations, including Audubon Connecticut, the Connecticut River Watershed Council, state agencies and other groups.

Several D.C. politicos praised Thursday's declaration, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., who described it as a way to reclaim lost natural legacies. "America has always had an important connection to our rivers and streams, but unfortunately many of us were cut off from the water during the boom of urban development," he said in a statement. "Now, as we continue to reconnect with the rivers that bind us together, we must expand our efforts to protect them and enjoy them."

While big blueways like the Connecticut River are highlights of the Great Outdoors Initiative, the program also boasts an array of smaller river-rehab efforts. Salazar has a list of 51 conservation projects nationwide, for instance — including one in every state and in the District of Columbia — that he's touting as models of "how communities across America can restore and reconnect with the rivers in their back yards." Some of these fall under the National Water Trails System, which was launched earlier this year with Atlanta's Chattahoochee River as its inaugural beneficiary.

If you're curious how a blueway differs from a water trail, Interior Department spokesman Adam Fetcher emailed this explanation to MNN: "A National Blueway encompasses the entire river, headwaters to mouth, and its watershed. It is recognized for integrating land and water management to promote resilient river systems that benefit both human and natural communities." On the other hand, "a National Water Trail is a segment of a river (and not the watershed or lands along the river) that is recognized for its recreational value." The blueway system is "based on many different authorities" vested in the Interior secretary, Fetcher adds, while water trails are designated under the authority of the National Trails Act.

According to the National Park Service, both blueways and water trails "embody the nexus between rivers and [land] trails." In most cases, it adds, both are managed in public-private partnerships "with the philosophies of environmental stewardship, environmental education and accessibility for all users."

For more information about blueways and water trails, check out this video produced by conservation group American Rivers:

Also on MNN:

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

U.S. creates first 'National Blueway'
Unlike the current patchwork of river protections, the National Blueway System will cover entire rivers 'from source to sea,' including their watersheds.