The Merced River in Yosemite National Park, California, boasts 114.5 miles protected since 1987 with an additional 8 miles added in 1992. However, this represents a portion of a much less encouraging number. Try 0.35%. That's the percent of all US river miles that are currently protected by law. Joel K Bourne, Jr. celebrates the efforts made by conservationists John Craighead and brother Frank Craighead in the latest issue of National Geographic. Check out some stunning photographs that show why these river miles are worth protecting.
Tinayguk River, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Alaska; 44 miles protected since 1980.According to Bourne's article, the two legendary river conservationists are who we can thank for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, the act is now responsible for the protection of over 200 rivers in 39 states and Puerto Rico.
Owyhee River, Owyhee River Wilderness, Idaho; 120 miles protected in Oregon since 1984 and 67.2 more since 1988; 171.1 miles protected in Idaho since 2009.
There are different reasons that conservationists hold for protecting rivers. There is of course the practical need -- without clean rivers, we lose important wildlife and habitats. But there is also something more spiritual. There is the joy that comes with being near such beautiful, powerful, and free bodies of flowing water. John Craighead told Bourne that his calling came simply because, "I just loved rivers."
And without his love for rivers, our river systems would likely be even worse off today than they already are.
Allagash River: Moonlight bathes a birchbark canoe on Maine's Allagash River, a tranquil spot for paddlers.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon is not so much a river as an exuberant expression of water at play. It tumbles and turns and trips over itself for a hundred miles through the largest unbroken wilderness in the lower 48, the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, named for the pristine Salmon River gorge and the Idaho senator who made sure most of its vast watershed would stay that way. No dams temper its flow. No roads line its banks. It dances down its canyon much as it has since the glaciers receded 10,000 years ago—in spring as a raging, tree-felling torrent, in late summer as a spare, crystalline rivulet.
Today it is one of the ultimate white-water experiences in the United States, drawing thousands of visitors each year. But 60 years ago its future—and that of hundreds of other rivers across the country—looked very different. For much of the 20th century, the federal government seemed determined to dam virtually all the major rivers in the country, harnessing their power for electricity, irrigation, navigation, water supply, and flood control. The dam binge was particularly acute in the arid West, where even the Grand Canyon was slated for flooding. The Army Corps of Engineers evaluated five prospective dam sites on the Middle Fork alone. The river would have morphed into a chain of man-made lakes if two brothers hadn't helped stem the tide of concrete.
Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Salmon-Challis National Forest, Idaho; 104 miles protected since 1968.
Today, only a minute fraction of rivers are protected, but with hope and effort, more miles of river can be protected for wildlife -- and wild human spirit -- to enjoy for generations.
The photos are in the November 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine, on newsstands October 25.
Follow Jaymi on Twitter for more stories like this