Wild and Scenic Rivers Act: Summary and Impact

List of rivers in the Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

Scenic view of river amidst trees against sky during sunset,Rogue River,Oregon,United States,USA
Oregon's Rogue River.

Greg Vall / Getty Images

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA) is a policy created by the United States Congress to preserve the free-flowing condition of rivers that have exceptional value in the areas of nature, culture, and recreation.

Instead of making these outstanding rivers off-limits to the public, the Act encourages their appropriate management and use so that they can be enjoyed and appreciated by present and future generations. It was also created with the goal of setting aside political boundaries and allowing the public to have a say in how the river is protected. The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, which was created under the Act, now includes over 13,400 miles of 226 rivers in 41 states and Puerto Rico.

When Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, rivers in the United States had been undergoing years of alteration and degradation from dams, pollution, logging, and development. In 1958, researchers Frank and John Craighead spearheaded the fight for a system of federally protected rivers after Frank worked for the U.S. Forest Service and John worked to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from building a dam on the Flathead River. They both saw the importance of maintaining wild rivers for current use and for the education and recreation of future generations.

A committee on national water resources was formed by the US Senate in 1959 in order to stop President Eisenhower’s administration from fighting the construction of federal dams. It was at a hearing for this committee that the Craigheads first spoke up for federal legislation that protected these important rivers. It took almost 10 years of study, 16 different bills, and an overwhelmingly bipartisan effort to finally pass the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Wild and Scenic Rivers System (WSRS)

The Wild and Scenic Rivers System (WSRS) was created by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. While Congress, and sometimes the Secretary of the Interior, designate new rivers to be added to the WSRS, they are ultimately not in charge of enforcing the law or protecting the rivers. For rivers administered by a federal agency, the four main agencies in charge of the management and protection of wild and scenic rivers are the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service, which manages a majority of the rivers.

These federal agencies are tasked with protecting and enhancing the values of the river that made it worthy of designation, but the Act does not give them control over any private property that happens to fall within the boundaries of the designated areas of the river. 

Summary of the Law

Rivers are chosen for designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act based on what the law describes as their outstandingly remarkable values (ORVs). The protection and enhancement of these ORVs are seen as the most important part of the Act. Along with its free-flowing nature, a river’s ORVs may include its scenic, esthetic, historic, scientific, and archaeological features. 

While any current agricultural, residential, and recreational practices are allowed to continue under the Act, ORVs can be used as a baseline for evaluating any proposed projects that could affect the river. A federally assisted water resource project or federally licensed dam may not be built on the river if it will interfere with or impact any of the river’s ORVs. 

Through easements of private land as well as land acquisition, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act establishes a quarter-mile protected corridor along either side of the river. The heads of federal agencies are required to work with states, landowners, private organizations, and individuals to create a cooperative river management plan in order to protect resources, address land and facilities development, and identify user capacities of the river and surrounding land. 

The law protects river areas under three categories:

Wild River Areas

These areas are often inaccessible to people and remain in pristine condition, appearing as they might have looked thousands of years ago. About 1/4 of the Eel River has been designated as wild.

Scenic River Areas

Some stretches of these river areas can be accessed by roads, where people can come to see free-flowing water that is undeveloped and undisturbed by human activity. The Wolf River is considered one of the most scenic in the Midwest.

Recreational River Areas

The most accessible of the three areas, recreational river areas can be visited by road or railway, where people may see development and evidence of past river alteration. The area surrounding the river and the river itself may be used for fishing, canoeing, rafting, hiking, camping, and other recreational activities. The Rio Grande is popular for white water rafting.

How Is the WSRA Enforced?

Rivers must have one of eight outstandingly remarkable values (ORVs) to be included in the Wild and Scenic Rivers System. These include recreation, scenic, fish, wildlife, geologic, culture, history, and other. Within the “other” category, a river can have ORVs in the categories of archaeology, literature, wilderness, paleontology, aquatic, biology, vegetation, cultural use, riparian, traditional use, hydrology, water quality, ecology, or botany.

Within the first year of inclusion, the agency that administers the Act for the designated river is required to "establish detailed boundaries" of the designated area and classify it as wild, scenic, and/or recreational based on its ORVs.

Federal agencies are typically in charge of carrying out the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, yet they often rely on volunteers to help implement it. Volunteers are used to monitor for invasive species, pick up trash, provide public education, and plant vegetation in order to provide shade and bank stabilization. 

And while the prohibition of new dams on the rivers is important for maintaining the health and beauty of the system, no part of the Act protects the rivers from pollution caused by humans that inevitably makes its way into the waters. In fact, 173 of the designated rivers are also on the 303(d) list of impaired waters as designated by the Clean Water Act. This means that they currently do not meet their intended use as a fishable, swimmable, or drinkable body of water.

A total of 25% of the river miles that are designated under the Act are also impaired. Without further action to protect these rivers, they will not be able to sustain the healthy natural habitats and scenic viewsheds they were first recognized for.

List of National Wild and Scenic Rivers

There are currently 226 rivers that are fully or partially designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Their designation may include the full length of the river, or it may only include part of the system.

Of all the rivers in the U.S., only 13,413 miles of river system have been protected by the Wild and Scenic River System. That amounts to less than 0.5% of all of the country’s rivers.

The first eight rivers to be added to the system in 1968 were the Clearwater, Eleven Point, Feather, Rio Grande, Rogue, Salmon, Wolf, and St. Croix. The Missouri River is the longest river on the list at 2,540 miles, but only 149 miles of that are officially designated.

Several stretches of the Snake River that run through Wyoming combine for 413.5 protected miles, the largest amount of river miles designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Eel River follows closely behind, boasting 398 miles of designated river in portions that flow through State, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Round Valley Indian Reservation land in California. The West Fork of the Bruneau River in Idaho has the fewest river miles designated, with only 0.4 miles under the administration of the Bureau of Land Management.

The Newest Members of the WSRS

Franklin Creek, Wasson Creek, Molalla River, Nestucca River, Walker Creek, North Fork Silver Creek, Spring Creek, Lobster Creek, Elk Creek, Green River, Jenny Creek, Farmington & Salmon Brook, Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed, Nashua River, Surprise Canyon Creek, Deep Creek, Whitewater River, part of the Rogue, Elk River, Farmington (West Branch) River, and the Amargosa River were the most recent water bodies designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act on March 12, 2019. 

The following are some of the most popular waterways protected by the WSRA.

Rio Grande

Santa Elena Canyon
The calm waters of the Rio Grande flow through Santa Elena Canyon in Texas. Mark A Paulda / Getty Images

A total of 74 miles of the Rio Grande flow through the Rio Grande Gorge as the water eventually makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico. It is home to bighorn sheep, otters, and the Rio Grande cutthroat trout. 

Clearwater River

Highway 12 along the Clearwater River near Lonore, Idaho, USA
Visitors can view the Clearwater River in Idaho from the highway that runs alongside the water. Alex Potemkin / Getty Images

The Middle Fork Clearwater River runs through the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, The Nez Perce National Forest, and the Clearwater National Forest of Idaho. There is a wide variety of both plants and wildlife along this Wild and Scenic River. 

Eleven Point River

Greer Spring
Greer Spring makes its way into Missouri's Eleven Point River. Eifel Kreutz / Getty Images

Hardwood trees line the banks of this Missouri river, where half of the mileage is National Forest and the other half is private property. Bass, trout, and walleye call the spring-fed river home. 

Feather River

Feather River at Grizzly Creek along the Feather River Canyon
The Feather River runs through some of California's most scenic vistas. Barbara Rich / Getty Images

The Feather River originates in California. The wild sections are largely inaccessible, and animals such as beaver, mule deer, and bald eagles are some of the species found here. Fishing is a popular activity on the river. 

Rogue River

Rogue River, Oregon, Dusk
Oregon's Rogue River was one of the first to be designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. alacatr / Getty Images

Known for its salmon and steelhead populations, the Rogue River is one of the longest rivers in Oregon. Mammals like otters and black bears, as well as birds of prey like osprey and great blue herons, frequent the edge of the river looking for food. 

Salmon River

Sunset, Lower Salmon River, Idaho
Sunset over the Lower Salmon River in Idaho. alacatr / Getty Images

The Salmon River in Idaho offers a home to large and small mammals, a variety of birds, and several types of trout and salmon. It flows through the Salmon Canyon, which is one-fifth of a mile deeper than the Grand Canyon. 

Wolf River

Beautiful Landscape On The Wolf River With Rocks And River weed , Wisconsin
Shallow grasses provide habitat for fish in Wisconsin's Wolf River. Stelsone / Getty Images

This small, 24-mile section of the Wolf River is part of one of the most scenic rivers in the Midwest. No parts of the river have been developed for use by the public. 

St. Croix River

Autumn on the St Croix River
Autumn colors frame the scenic St. Croix River in Wisconsin. JenniferPhotographyImaging / Getty Images

Although it is close to densely populated areas in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the St. Croix River still offers excellent habitat for fish and wildlife. It is popular for birdwatchers and people who want to paddle through the wooded corridor. 

Missouri River

Confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers
The Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, both designated as Wild and Scenic Rivers, meet in North Dakota. Richard Hamilton Smith / Getty Images

The upper Missouri River contains 49 species of fish, including one of six paddlefish populations in the country. The lower portion of the river has two different designated segments that represent the last undammed parts of the river and show off the natural habitats that thrive when left untouched.

Allegheny River

Railroad Truss Bridge over the River bend
Scenic rivers like the Allegheny in Pennsylvania can be viewed by highway or railway. Douglas Sacha / Getty Images

Approximately 87 miles of the Allegheny River in New York and Pennsylvania are designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. It contains the largest freshwater mussel habitat in the world, and has an abundance of popular sport fish.

Delaware River

Delaware Water Gap
The Delaware Water Gap in New Jersey was formed by the Delaware River. Posnov / Getty Images

The North, Middle, and South forks of the Delaware River all contain designated river miles and are home to a wide variety of habitats ranging from desert-like cliffs to areas that have plants and animals usually only found in arctic-alpine regions. It is part of one of only four major waterfowl routes on the continent and is an excellent habitat for a variety of fish species. 

Yellowstone River

Retracing the Lewis and Clark Expedition Yellowstone River
The Yellowstone River flows past tall cliffs in North Dakota. Visions of America/Universal Images Group / Getty Images

The breathtaking scenery of the Yellowstone River can be viewed from two important scenic highways that draw visitors from all over the country and abroad. The area is home to gray wolves, grizzly bears, moose, elk, and many other important species that call the undisturbed wilderness home. 

Clackamas River

Mt.Hood over Clackamas river
Mt. Hood looms in the background as the Clackamas River makes its way down from the Cascades in Oregon. Strekoza2 / Getty Images

The Clackamas River flows northwest from the Cascade Mountain range in Oregon and travels through Mt. Hood National Forest. It is home to old-growth Douglas fir forests and was an important area for Indigenous peoples to hunt and gather food and materials. It is also a critical habitat for some of the last populations of coho and chinook salmon, steelhead, cutthroat trout, and native lamprey. 

Snake River Headwaters

Morning commute
Elk traverse the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images / Getty Images

Thirteen different segments make up the 413.5 miles of designated river in the Snake River Headwaters. They flow through four different national parks, including Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. They are some of the most pristine waters in the entire country. 

River Styx

Oregon Caves National Monument, Oregon - June 2010
Oregon Caves National Monument is home to the nation's only underground Wild and Scenic River, the River Styx. fdastudillo / Getty Images

While not an actual river, this small 0.4-mile segment of Cave Creek is located in the Oregon Caves National Monument. It is the only underground river in the Wild and Scenic Rivers System. It was designated in 2014. 

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