From the Mag: He Speaks for the Streams

John Little and Vermont's First Wild and Scenic Rivers

Vermont river conservationist John Little.
Vermont river conservationist John Little.

Words and photos by Berne Broudy

When he got the news, John Little did a happy dance in his high school classroom. With just two days to spare in the 2014 legislative session, Congress had passed the FY-15 Defense Authorization Act, which details $554 billion in defense spending and, on page 1,411, designates sections of northern Vermont’s Missisquoi and Trout Rivers as Wild and Scenic.

That is what Little was dancing about—the culmination of a decade-long grassroots effort he’d spearheaded. Though Vermont has 545 rivers and streams and more than 24,500 miles of flowing water, the Missisquoi and Trout are the first Vermont rivers to be recognized by this program.

“I didn’t know him from Adam when he wandered in, but before he left he had me convinced that we needed to know more about the jewel that flows through our town.” –Jacques Couture

The journey began in 2004, when the soft-spoken 56-year-old science teacher learned about the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, which Congress created in 1968 to ‘preserve certain rivers with outstandingly remarkable natural, cultural and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.’ Little, whose avocations include gentleman farmer, canoe builder and brewer (Vermont’s Rock Art brewery bottles his Imperial Spruce Stout), is also a board member of the Missisquoi River Basin Association (MRBA). He became obsessed with getting the Missisquoi listed—mostly, he says, for the money. “You get your river designated, and the feds give you money every year to work on it. No more fighting for $500 grants to plant trees in riparian zones.”

Little on the Mississquoi in his 20-foot hand-built stripper.
Little on the Mississquoi in his 20-foot hand-built stripper.

Federal involvement is a hard sell to fiercely independent Vermonters, though, and Little wasn’t even sure the river had the required ‘outstandingly remarkable’ values, or ORVs. Ten different riverside communities would have to sign off on a study of the river’s attributes.

Little started making house calls. He stopped by Jacques (pronounced Jake) Couture’s barn one night at milking time to ask the farmer and selectman to propose the study to his town.

“I didn’t know him from Adam when he wandered in,” Couture recalls, “But before he left he had me convinced that we needed to know more about the jewel that flows through our town. I listened with curiosity, and my hackles up. But, very quickly I saw the sense of it.”

Like many Vermonters, Couture doesn’t like to be told what to do. “Sometimes even if deep down I know that rules make sense, thou shalt not this and thou shalt not that don’t sit well with me,” said Couture. “But talking with John and MRBA,
I reconnected with the river of my childhood, and I came to see the river in a whole new way.”

Literally. Though he had been born and raised on a riverside farm, Couture had never been in a boat until Little handed him a paddle and a lifejacket and the pair shoved off into the Missisquoi in Little’s hand- built wood strip canoe. “It woke up something within me that was very deep,” said Couture.

It took two years to get all 10 Missisquoi basin select boards to vote in support of the study, and in 2009, the Upper Missisquoi and Trout Rivers Wild and Scenic Study Committee was formed to conduct it. The study showed the rivers were chock-a- block with outstandingly remarkable attributes, including historic covered bridges and mills, a rail trail, a section of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, the biggest waterfall in the state, several gorges and countless notable and rare biological and insect communities.

It took four years to complete the study, and in 2013 all but one river community voted in support of the designation. “We realized that whatever we can do to celebrate the beauty of things in this area can only improve our communities,” Couture says. The next step was the U.S. Congress. All three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation— Rep. Peter Welch, and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy— sponsored the bill.

It wasn’t particularly controversial, but 2014 was a contentious year in Congress. Little feared the rivers bill would become a victim of gridlock and ultimately forgotten. “I had given up,” said Little. “We were down to the last week of the entire congress adjourning after a two year legislative session. We would have had to start over if the bill hadn’t passed.”

Nobody seems to know how the Wild and Scenic Rivers designation became a provision of the defense bill, but the Missisquoi and Trout are now federally protected waterways. The communities will soon have access to federal funds for river projects, as well as protection against new dams and local control over federal projects. But not all of the communities want the same thing. “I was on Cloud Nine for quite a while once we got approved,” he says with a smile. “Then I realized— crap, this means more meetings then I ever dreamed of.”

So before that next phase, Little is taking a break. This summer he’s paddling his 19-year old wooden canoe from Swanton, Vermont down the Hudson River to New York City. And then he’ll come home to protect the rivers he loves.

–This story first appeared in the August 2015 issue of
Canoe & Kayak.