Working with State and Federal Agencies

It is the job of natural resource agencies to responsibly manage public resources, which include public lands, fish and wildlife, the air, rivers, and lakes. These resources belong to everyone – which is very different than belonging to no one. Because they belong to everyone they belong - in part - to you. Therefore, when an individual or corporation damages those natural resources they are damaging your property. This is precisely why natural resource agencies have conservation oriented missions, and all have mandated policies for listening to the public and addressing our concerns.

Most agency personnel genuinely want to do the right thing for the environment and the public good. However, not everyone will agree (sometimes very rightfully) with their opinion of what the right thing is, including the President of the United States, congressmen, politically appointed department heads, other agency personnel, industry lobbyists, environmental organizations, and individuals. All of these groups of people play a role in natural resource decisions in what often feels like a great multi-directional tug of war. In the center is the agency decision maker that needs to strictly follow their agency’s regulations, address the public and political concerns, and if at all possible make a decision that actually accomplishes resource management objectives that are consistent with the agency’s mission and hopefully good for the environment.

The tug of war for our natural resources is often pulled in two primary directions. On one end of the rope are the people who wish to capitalize on public natural resources in a manner that yields them all the profits while the costs are borne by the public in the form of poor air quality, lost biodiversity, lost recreation opportunities, increased water treatment costs, environmental clean up efforts, etc. Under this scenario the profits are focused while the costs are dispersed, the profits are NOW while the costs often last for decades or even centuries. On the other end of the rope are the people, plants, and animals that pay the costs, often represented by environmental non-governmental organizations (NGO’s).

Going back to the premise that most agency personnel want to do the right thing – the river advocate’s job is to help them. Specifically, we must pull hard on the ever taut tug-o-war rope, and get as many other people to join us, including political representatives. We do this through filing comments on decisions, using the media, organizing letter writing campaigns, and other grassroots techniques – and we can also use the court systems when the law is being broken. Doing so will only help well meaning agency personnel do their jobs, and insulate them from others that might not be as good intentioned.

This chapter is meant to give river advocates a general understanding of each of the primary natural resource management agencies. By understanding an agency’s mission, activities, and history, one can form the groundwork for helping agencies carry out their mission work in support of protecting and restoring rivers and their watersheds. Agencies are a wellspring of information and assistance, and developing sound relationships with agencies can be incredibly fruitful and fulfilling.

Federal Agencies

Established in 1905, the Forest Service is an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Forest Service manages public lands in national forests and grasslands. The USFS mission is “to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.” National forests and grasslands encompass 191 million acres (77.3 million hectares) of land, which is an area equivalent to the size of Texas. The USFS has a multi use policy that encompasses recreation as well as timber management and other forest uses. They manage many whitewater rivers, and in some instances charge fees for facilities, issue permits for river access, and have in only one case banned paddling on a river (the Chattooga River). Typically, they allow and support whitewater recreation. The USFS has “mandatory conditioning authorities” during dam relicensings that effect USFS lands, which give the agency a significant and unique power in these processes.
The USFS and the National Forest Foundation have a Partnership Resource Center that is online at:

AW Partner: AW has formed strong partnerships with the USFS on individual rivers across the Nation. Two good examples of such parterships are on the Cheaoh River and the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie.

The National Park Service is part of the Department of the Interior, and acts to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world. The NPS manages different parks in very different ways with regards to recreational paddling. Generally, paddling is allowed and encouraged within National Parks, however there are noteworthy exceptions. For example, it is illegal to paddle all rivers in Yellowstone National Park.

The Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program (, also known as the Rivers & Trails Program or RTCA, is a community resource of the National Park Service. Rivers & Trails staff work with community groups and local and State governments to conserve rivers, preserve open space, and develop trails and greenways. RTCA can be an excellent resource for local projects and they have written some very helpful publications. Their interests are very similar to ours and are highly compatible. RTCA has developed its own excellent toolkit which we encourage river advocates to spend some time with.

AW Partner: The RTCA has worked with AW on a national level to support this tookit and to share resources.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior, administers 261 million acres of America's public lands, located primarily in 12 Western States. The BLM sustains the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. The BLM also owns and manages many dams throughout the Western US. The BLM is typically in charge of non-forested rangelands and dams in regions in need of irrigation. They typically allow and support river recreation. For more information on BLM managed rivers, check out theBLM Database of Floatable Rivers

AW Partner: The BLM has supported AW on a national level and we have partnered to share our extensive river pages with them.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a bureau within the Dept of the Interior. Their mission is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93 million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System of more than 520 National Wildlife Refuges and thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. Under the Fisheries Program it also operates 66 National Fish Hatcheries, 64 fishery resource offices and 78 ecological services field stations. Among its key functions, the Service enforces Federal wildlife laws, protects endangered species, manages migratory birds, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their international conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to State fish and wildlife agencies. The USFWS does not generally endorse or oppose recreation as it is not within the agencies’ mission, however other DOI agencies can be more supportive.

The mission of the Environmental Protection Agency is to protect human health and the environment. Since 1970, EPA has been working for a cleaner, healthier environment for the American people. EPA is led by the Administrator, who is appointed by the President of the United States. This situation creates a vastly flexible agency that reflects the whim of the president, nearly as much as the health needs of the American Public. EPA works to develop and enforce regulations that implement environmental laws enacted by Congress. EPA is responsible for researching and setting national standards for a variety of environmental programs, and delegates to states and tribes the responsibility for issuing permits and for monitoring and enforcing compliance. Where national standards are not met, EPA can issue sanctions and take other steps to assist the states and tribes in reaching the desired levels of environmental quality. The EPA, while subject to political intervention, can be an asset in environmental work. Their web page hosts a vast reservoir of knowledge that is spatially organized.

The ACOE’s mission is to provide quality, responsive engineering services to the nation including planning, designing, building and operating water resources and other civil works projects (Navigation, Flood Control, Environmental Protection, Disaster Response, etc.) The ACOE builds and operates dams, including several dams on whitewater rivers (Examples include Gauley, Youghiogheny, and Lehigh). They typically manage the dams for the purposes for which they were built, which sometimes include recreation and sometimes do not. The manager of each dam has a great deal of discretion as to its management. The ACOE also regulates and issues permits for streambed alterations. They are the primary contact if you witness and wish to report the alteration of a streambed, or if you are involved in a whitewater park or access project that requires significant modification of the streambed.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regulates and oversees energy industries in the economic and environmental interest of the American public. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, is an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of natural gas, oil, and electricity. FERC also regulates natural gas and hydropower projects. The FERC issue licenses for privately owned hydro projects nationwide that expire every 30-50 years. Upon expiration the FERC oversees a 5-6 year relicensing process during which the dam owners generally are required to perform protection, mitigation and enhancement measures to offset the social and environmental impacts of the operation of their dams. American Whitewater is often involved in these processes and has successfully advocated for recreational releases, flow information, river access, and land conservation on relicensings across the country.

State Agencies

  • Fish and Wildlife Agencies

Fish and wildlife are generally the responsibility of the state in which the fish and wildlife live, with the exception of federally protected species such as migratory birds and endangered species which fall under the jurisdiction of the USFWS. Every state is slightly different but in general there is a state agency in charge of fish and wildlife, but more to the point, fishing and hunting. These agencies issue hunting and fishing licenses and receive direct revenue from the sale of these licenses and from other taxes on fire arms, fishing tackle, gasoline, and other items. The agencies are therefore generally well funded and sometimes receive little to no funding from the general tax base. These agencies also often own and manage gamelands, lands specifically managed for hunting and fishing. Oftentimes, state wildlife agencies support paddling as a beneficial use, or are indifferent, but occasionally they actively oppose paddlers’ interests. The rare cases where these agencies have opposed paddling, have been based on the agency’s perspective that they are not funded to deal with us (hence the recent rash of propose kayak registration programs) or that our use of rivers somehow conflicts with hunting and fishing use. State wildlife enforcement officers have more authority and freedom to search than do police. In some cases of conflict, state wildlife agencies have been difficult to negotiate with because they did not feel paddlers are their constituents, and because of their regulatory and financial autonomy. Examples of conflict include paddling access to the Green River (NC), Chattooga River (SC, GA, NC), and the Obed System (TN).

  • Water Quality Agencies

The quality and quantity of water in a state’s rivers is ultimately the responsibility of a state agency charged with that responsibility through the Clean Water Act. All water quality issues should first be brought to the attention of the state water quality agency. These agencies must issue a water quality permit for each FERC regulated dam in the state, and thus have a great deal of authority in dam relicensing processes. The same state agencies, in concert with the state wildlife agencies are often the driving force (however strong or weak) behind the river access and navigability laws. Many states even have a specific department or program focused on river access. The state agencies often share interests with paddlers, and we generally find working with them very efficient and fruitful. The clean water act protects beneficial uses such as boating, and therefore the state water agencies generally do have a role to play in river access issues.

Future Partnership Opportunities

American Whitewater is developing a partnership program aimed at sharing information and resources with public land and water management agencies. This partnership would provide a familiar point of contact as well as information to agencies on river safety, use patterns, recreational impacts on the land and other recreational users, river access needs, etc. For American Whitewater and the paddling community this partnership provides an opportunity to provide positive input on river health and protection. In short this partnership approach enables the paddling community to add value to river management.

  • Provide agencies with current and comprehensive information on whitewater use and users.
  • Share the River Stewardship Toolkit.
  • Pair agency personnel with a team of regional River Stewards that can answer questions regarding paddling use, participate in stewardship projects (stream clean ups, access area maintenance, NEPA/planning collaboration), and address safety concerns.
  • Foster strong relationships between the paddling community and agency personnel.
  • Offer the agencies the ability to communicate with the paddling community regularly and with a familiar face.
  • Allow American Whitewater to share our mission and interests with the agencies in a positive and proactive manner.
  • Insert volunteers into local stewardship issues like timber sales, road construction/closures, mining, and recreational permits.
Join AW and support river stewardship nationwide!