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:
Beauty and scenery
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:
Big Jacks Creek
Bruneau River (West Fork)
Clearwater River (Middle Fork)
Little Jacks Creek
Owyhee River (North Fork)
Owyhee River (South Fork)
St. Joe River
Middle Fork of the Salmon
The Middle Fork of the Salmon
The Middle Fork of the Salmon is one of the first eight charter rivers of the Act designated in 1968; protected for its pristine water and wild character. It is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Salmon-Challis National Forest. The entirety of the river is protected, from its origin 20 miles northwest of Stanley, Idaho, where Bear Valley and Marsh Creeks merge to its confluence with the Main Salmon River. The river is designated and classified as wild with the exception of a one-mile segment near the Dagger Falls-Boundary Creek Road, which is classified as scenic. All of the river, excluding the one mile scenic segment is within the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, totalling 104 miles. The Middle Fork is one of the last free-flowing tributaries of the Salmon River system and is critical habitat for chinook salmon and bull trout.
How to Celebrate the 50th Anniversary
“When we save a river, we save a major part of an ecosystem, and we save ourselves as well because of our dependence—physical, economic, spiritual—on the water and its community of life”
(Tim Palmer, The Wild and Scenic Rivers of America)
Share this story. “Rivers are an important part of America’s natural and cultural heritage. They have been sources of physical sustenance and spiritual inspiration, provided an impetus for human settlement, and served as paths for exploration, commerce, and travel. If we are to fully understand America’s history, it is imperative to fully understand the contributions that rivers have made to our nation’s growth, development, and conservation ethic (Sue Jennings, Celebrating 40 years of the wild and Scenic Rivers Act).” Rivers are vital to resilient ecosystems, human health and our national well being. Work with us to protect rivers for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations for another 50 years!
Check out events hosted by The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. 2018 will be marked by events throughout the country where communities will host awareness, education, stewardship, and advocacy events and outreach designed to building capacity for future activism.
Follow our friends at North West Rafting Company who are visiting every Wild and Scenic river in Oregon to celebrate the 50th anniversary. Check out their progress and stories here.
Follow our incredible talented and ambitious friends Adam and Susan’s Wild River Life as they paddle and explore 50 Wild & Scenic rivers to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.
To find out more about the anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act check out the official page: www.rivers.gov/wsr50/
If you want to totally nerd out about how the act moves through congress and is regulated this is an awesome write up: nationalaglawcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/assets/crs/R42614.pdf
Here is a great article written for the 40th anniversary that is still very relevant a decade later: http://www.georgewright.org/252jennings.pdf
Some great information about the Middle Fork of the Salmon and its history as it regards to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act: https://www.rivers.gov/rivers/salmon-mf-id.php