LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Anglers won their fight Monday to preserve access to prime fishing spots below dams along the Cumberland River in Kentucky and Tennessee, catching the attention of Congress and now President Barack Obama.
Obama signed into law a bill imposing a two-year moratorium on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from erecting barriers to prevent fishing in the popular tailwaters near dams along the Cumberland and its tributaries. The legislation, called the Freedom to Fish Act, was sponsored by lawmakers from both states.
"It's a winning day for all those who love to fish in those areas," Livingston County Judge-Executive Chris Lasher said.
The measure was seen as a short-term solution while lawmakers from both states push for a permanent ban on putting up barriers in those areas. Legislation that includes the permanent moratorium on such fishing restrictions along the Cumberland is pending in the U.S. House.
Fishing enthusiasts, backed by local officials, attended rallies and meetings and contacted members of Congress to express outrage at the Corps' proposal to add restrictions near the dams. The Corps said the purpose was to enhance boating safety. It looked at placing steel cable anchored with buoys across the water to seal off access near the dams.
The restrictions would have cut off places where anglers have reeled in big catches for decades in a region known as a recreational haven.
Local officials said the restrictions would have hurt tourism, a key contributor to the region's economy.
It's not unusual to see anglers in 15 to 20 boats along a stretch of tailwater, Lasher said.
Ken McGregor, who owns a bait and tackle store near Lake Barkley, estimated the restrictions would have cut his business by up to 20 percent. Those tailwaters not only attracted anglers from Kentucky and Tennessee, but from as far away as Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.
"They're going to be tickled to death," he said. "Most of that fishing up there is part of a brotherhood that's grown over the years."
Lasher said the restrictions would have had a trickle-down effect on the region's economy, hurting motels, restaurants, bait and tackle shops and guide services.
"It's without a doubt a prime example of elected officials listening to what's going on and understanding it and acting upon it," he said.
Lyon County Judge-Executive Wade White said the fishing restrictions would have been an unjustified "blow to our economy"
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the voices of the region's fishing enthusiasts and shop owners were heard.
"I appreciate the president signing the legislation into law and reversing the administration's decision to place barriers and restrict fishing along the Cumberland River," said McConnell, who led the push for the legislation. "No one I know in Kentucky supported this plan."
For McConnell, who faces a potentially tough re-election campaign next year, resolving the issue will give him a chance to angle for support among the state's fishing enthusiasts. The Republican stalwart is seeking a sixth term in 2014.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who also co-sponsored the bill, said livelihoods for business owners and fishermen were at stake amid the fight over access to fishing waters.
"Because of this legislation's enactment, they will continue to enjoy the freedom to fish without the bureaucratic overreach of the Army Corps," said Paul, R-Ky.
U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., was the bill's lead sponsor in the House.
Bill Peoples, a spokesman for the Corps' district office in Nashville, Tennessee, said the Corps will comply with the new law and work with both states to implement it.
The Corps had said that boating too close to spillways at the dams is risky and that 14 people have died in tailwaters below dams on the Cumberland River since 1970, including three since 2009.
McGregor countered that the tailwaters are safer for anglers than in the river's main channel.
"That's their safe zone," he said of the tailwaters. "They don't have to worry about going downriver and getting in tight places and being swamped by barges."