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The 50th Anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

On October 2, 1968 Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations. Since the act passed, 12,734 miles of 208 rivers in 40 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico have been protected. This number represents a little bit more than one-quarter of one percent of the nation's rivers. In 2018 we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of its passage!

History of the Act

In the late 1960s the United States was in a period of significant political and social upheaval. Across the country there was a growing recognition of the damage being caused to natural and cultural resources, the landscape, our drinking water and our American heritage.

Starting in the late 1950s and early 1960s environmental legislation began to make its way through congress. The first major legislation was the Clean Air Act, this was followed by many others including the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Championed by Senator Frank Church of Idaho, and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on October 2, 1968, the act was the culmination of a long battle to preserve free flowing rivers in an era of extensive dam building and preserve some of the last wild rivers in the US.

"It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments, possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations. The Congress declares that the established national policy of dams and other construction at appropriate sections of the rivers of the United States needs to be complemented by a policy that would preserve other selected rivers or sections thereof in their free-flowing condition to protect the water quality of such rivers and to fulfill other vital national conservation purposes."
(Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, October 2, 1968)

What the Act Does

The act outlines the process of how rivers become part of the national system, how they are managed, what kinds of developments can occur within a river’s corridor, and how the federal government and its partners manage and cooperatively share stewardship responsibilities.

How a river becomes part of the National Wild and Scenic River System

Rivers are added to the system by an act of Congress or by state nomination with the approval of the Secretary of the Interior.

Types of Designation

A designation through the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protects a waterway under three different kinds of designations; Wild, Scenic, or Recreational. In order to qualify for federal designation, a river or river segment must be in a free-flowing condition, have good water quality, and be deemed to have one or more “outstandingly remarkable” quality such as:

  • Pristine water

  • Beauty and scenery

  • River recreation

  • Richness of animal and plant life

  • Importance to our country’s history and culture

Wild - free from impoundments (dams, diversions, etc.) and generally inaccessible except by trail. The watersheds (area surrounding the rivers and tributaries) are

primitive and the shorelines are essentially undeveloped.

Scenic - free from impoundments and in generally undeveloped areas, but are accessible in places by roads.

Recreational - readily accessible by road, with some shoreline development, and may have been subject to some impoundment or diversion in the past.


When a river or river segment is designated a management plan is created and is the basis for the rules and regulations that apply to each water way. There are four federal agencies that are responsible for administering, managing and regulating rivers in the national system, they are the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).

How the Act Protects Rivers

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act serves as the nation’s primary river conservation authority. The act prevents new dams on our nation's most pristine and precious river-ways and sets forth management to enhance the underlying qualities which make each river outstandingly remarkable.

The Act is notable for safeguarding the special character of rivers, while also recognizing the potential for their appropriate use and development. It encourages river management that crosses political boundaries and promotes public participation in developing goals for river protection. The act is intended to balance the federal government’s role in damming and channelizing rivers for power, flood control, and agricultural purposes with protection of the free-flowing character and associated values of selected rivers.

Wild and Scenic Rivers in Idaho

Idaho has approximately 107,651 miles of river, of which 891 miles are designated as Wild & Scenic—less than 1% of the state's river miles.

Here is the list of the designated rivers in Idaho:

  • Battle Creek