Written by NWNL Project Manager, Sarah Kearns
with Research by Jenna Petrone
“An unspoiled river is a very rare thing in this Nation today. Their flow and vitality have been harnessed by dams and too often they have been turned into open sewers by communities and by industries. It makes us all very fearful that all rivers will go this way unless somebody acts now to try to balance our river development.” — Lyndon B. Johnson, on signing the US Wild & Scenic Rivers Act in 1968.1
McKenzie River, Oregon, Columbia River Basin
On October 2 this year, the US will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act established to preserve rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values in their free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.2
At the time of enactment in 1968, eight rivers were given the designation of Wild & Scenic Rivers: Clearwater, Eleven Point, Feather, Rio Grande, Rogue, St. Croix, Salmon, and Wolf. As of December 2014, this National System, under the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, protects 12,734 miles of 208 rivers in 40 states and Puerto Rico. The total mileage of this system represents about .35% of US rivers, compared to the 17% of US rivers totaling 600,000 miles, that are currently dammed or modified by 75,000 large dams.3
While .35% is a shockingly small percentage, the official anniversary website reminds us to celebrate the Act’s accomplishments over the past fifty years. The growth from protecting only 8 rivers to protecting 208 rivers spanning 12,000 miles is a huge accomplishment. We encourage all to celebrate in order to look positively to the future when another 12,000 miles could be designated!
Missouri River, Nebraska, Mississippi River Basin
What exactly is a “Wild & Scenic River?”
Under this Act, Congress can designate a river under one of three classifications: wild, scenic, or recreational. A designated river can be a segment or stretch of a river, not only its entire length, and can also include tributaries.
How does a river get classified?
“Wild” River Classification: Rivers (or sections of rivers) that are “free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive and waters unpolluted.”
“Scenic” River Classification: Rivers (or sections of rivers) that are “free of impoundments, with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive and shorelines largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads.”
“Recreational” River Classification: Rivers (or sections of rivers) that are “readily accessible by road or railroad, that may have some development along their shorelines, and that may have undergone some impoundment or diversion in the past.”4
Snake River, Washington, Columbia River Basin
It is important to note that the type of classification doesn’t change the type of protection each river or segment receives! All rivers/segments designated under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act are administered with the goal of protecting and enhancing the values that caused it to be designated to begin with. This protection is administered by federal or state agencies, which is provided through voluntary stewardship.5
Of the 208 rivers & river segments, 23 are located in NWNL’s US Case-Study Watersheds and Spotlights: Columbia River Basin, Mississippi River Basin and California. Between now and the official October 2 anniversary, we will post several more blogs with photographs of many of these designated rivers.
Merced River, California
How can you celebrate? NWNL encourages everyone to support all of our rivers and freshwater waterways, particularly the ones protected under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Acts. Swim in your local recreational river; go boating; organize a “Bioblitz;” join your local river stewardship organization; and most importantly, talk to your friends and families about why our river are so vital to our country! This interactive story map shows whether you live near a designated river or river segment! For more information about 50th Anniversary events, view the official National Wild and Scenic Rivers System toolkit.
St Croix River, Wisconsin, Mississippi River Basin
All photos © Alison M. Jones.