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American Whitewater and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

:stewardship:kennedy.jpgPaddlers love wild and free flowing rivers and have successfully advocated for their inclusion in the Wild and Scenic Rivers system for decades. Upon witnessing the loss of hundreds of miles of great rivers to water development projects and hydropower, paddlers were among the first activists to advocate for a national system to protect our nation's last free-flowing rivers. Articles in the AW Journal by paddlers like Oz Hawksley documented the grandeur of the Selway and other rivers in the 1960s. Through the AW Journal, Oz kept paddlers across the country informed on the progress of Wild Rivers legislation and the ultimate signing of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act on October 2, 1968. Affiliate clubs became involved in education and outreach efforts, including a trip by KCCNY to take Senator Kennedy (in the photo) and Interior Secretary Udall down the Hudson River to promote the Wild Rivers Bill, and efforts by the Wisconsin Hoofers to highlight the need to protect the Wolf River in Wisconsin while Gaylord Nelson was still Governor and before he joined the Senate. Over the decades and through today, paddlers continue to take an active role in securing new designations and advocating for protection for hundreds of rivers that agencies have determined to be “eligible” Wild and Scenic Rivers, but have not been formally designated.

Learn more about about Wild and Scenic Rivers at rivers.gov
Google Earth Wild and Scenic Rivers Map
Google Earth USFS Eligible Wild and Scenic Rivers Map

An Overview of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

:stewardship:grande_ronde.jpgThe WSR-Act is essentially a non-degradation policy - meaning that it does not allow the values for which a river was designated to be diminished by human causes. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act itself is relatively short (if you exclude the list of designated rivers) and easy to read and understand. The key goals of the Act are spelled out as follows:

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)

We strongly recommending reading the act itself which includes some additional details along with the complete list of designated rivers and specific conditions associated with those rivers. At the time of designation “outstandingly remarkable values” are defined. These values are those features of the river that have regional or national significance and represent the criteria that make a river eligible for designation. For example if recreation is an outstanding value, agency guidelines state that “visitors are willing to travel long distances to use the river resources for recreational purposes.” The outstanding values are based on agency studies and stakeholder input and the simple goal of designation is to protect these values. In many cases the agency may not be aware of the regional or national significance of an outstanding whitewater run that could be protected through the Act and it is up to paddlers to make the case.

Every Wild and Scenic River is classified into one of three categories as follows:

  1. Wild Rivers — Those rivers or sections of rivers that are free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive and waters unpolluted. These represent vestiges of primitive America.
  2. Scenic Rivers — Those rivers or sections of rivers that are free of impoundments, with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive and shorelines largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads.
  3. Recreational Rivers — Those rivers or sections of rivers that are readily accessible by road or railroad, that may have some development along their shorelines, and that may have undergone some impoundment or diversion in the past.

Shortly after designation, river management plans are developed to protect the values in a manner consistent with the classification of the segment. Regardless of the type of designation, all WSR’s are protected from dam construction, and all must maintain the specific values for which they were designated. Wild and Scenic Rivers are managed by a variety of federal agencies, based on land ownership along the river corridor. It is important to note that designation neither prohibits development nor gives the federal government control over any private property along the river corridor. Designation creates a mechanism for local land trust or management agencies to acquire land from willing sellers and this can often be an alternative to future development. Local communities have supported designation because it conserves the quality and character of rivers that have high community value. Economic studies have shown benefits to these communities from tourism and enhanced quality of life due to preservation of these special places.

How to Get Involved

:stewardship:white_salmon.jpgA paddler’s role in effectively utilizing the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act will often be in serving with the agency as a partner in the management of the river. In addition paddlers are critical participants in eligibility studies conducted by the agency and the Congressional designation process. For whitewater runs of regional or national significance, paddlers should make sure that paddling use is listed as an outstandingly remarkable value in all the study and recommendation documents by directly communicating these interests with the agency in charge of designation and Congressional staff who may be involved in crafting legislation. In addition paddlers often have an intimate knowledge of the river corridor and can contribute valuable information to the process. Paddlers interested in having rivers designated should check with the land management agency that manages the river corridor in question. Often these agencies will have lists of study rivers (found in general management plans) that they have already recommended to Congress for designation and simply need public and political support to secure designation for these rivers. Paddlers are in an excellent position to provide this support and AW staff are experienced in providing support to local paddlers who would like assistance.

If an agency is developing a general management plan for a unit that includes rivers, the agency is obligated to evaluate rivers for their eligibility as Wild and Scenic Rivers. In times of shrinking agency budgets we have observed that this review will often be incomplete unless paddlers and other river advocates bring information to the table and make the case for rivers. Section 5(d)(1) of the Wild and Scenic River Act states: “In all planning for the use and development of water and related land resources, consideration shall be given by all Federal agencies involved to potential national wild, scenic and recreational river areas, and all river basin and project plan reports submitted to the Congress shall consider and discuss any such potentials. The Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture shall make specific studies and investigations to determine which additional wild, scenic and recreational river areas within the United States shall be evaluated in planning reports by all Federal agencies as potential alternative uses of the water and related land resources involved.” Paddlers can remind agencies of this provision when they undertake planning efforts and offer to assist in providing the information needed. Being able to document places that are not easy for agency staff to access by submitting photos to the American Whitewater website is a simple way to visually make the case for rivers that need to be protected.

Specifically, agency guidelines state:

For a river to be eligible for designation to the National System, the river, with its adjacent land area, must have one or more outstandingly remarkable values. There are a variety of methods to determine that certain river-related values are so unique, rare, or exemplary as to make them outstandingly remarkable. The determination that a river area contains outstanding values is a professional judgment on the part of an interdisciplinary team, based on objective, scientific analysis. Input from organizations and individuals familiar with specific river resources should be sought and documented as part of the process. In order to be assessed as outstandingly remarkable, a river-related value must be a unique, rare, or exemplary feature that is significant at a comparative regional or national scale. A river-related value would be a conspicuous example of that value from among a number of similar examples that are themselves uncommon or extraordinary. Recreational opportunities are, or have the potential to be, popular enough to attract visitors from throughout or beyond the region of comparison or are unique or rare within the region. River-related opportunities include, but are not limited to, sightseeing, interpretation, wildlife observation, camping, photography, hiking, fishing, hunting, and boating. The river may provide settings for national or regional usage or competitive events. Forest Service Handbook 1909.12-2006-8, Chapter 82.14

Identifying rivers that are eligible or suitable for Wild and Scenic designation is important because they are then afforded administrative protection. The Forest Service for example states in their manual guiding management that a “river found to be eligible and suitable must be protected as far as possible to the same extent as a designated study river” (FSM 2354.62). These rivers must therefore be managed “to protect existing characteristics” and “resource management activities may be carried out provided they do not cause a negative or reduced classification recommendation” (FSM 2354.21). While these administrative protections are not as strong as Congressional designation, they do provide important protection and paddlers can often be very effective in making the case for eligibility determinations during agency planning efforts. Eligible rivers are listed in the National Rivers Inventory. The US Forest Service has also developed a spreadsheet of the eligible and suitable rivers under their management (as of May 2010).

Paddling and other non-motorized recreation is generally considered strongly compatible with all types of Wild and Scenic designation. The only exception is the Headwaters of the Chattooga which was designated with paddling clearly noted as an outstandingly remarkable value. Paddling was banned on the Chattooga for unknown reasons in the 70’s and again in 2004. We are currently working to bring nationally consistent river management to this spectacular river which provides one of the few opportunities for whitewater wilderness exploration on the east coast learn more.

American Whitewater Eligibility Recommendations

Management Plans

Management Policies and Guidance

Economic Benefits

River protection can result in economic benefits for local communities. The National Park Service Rivers and Trails Program publishes a bibliography titled Economic Benefits of Conserved Rivers. Economic studies on specific rivers have been conducted for the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River, Rogue Wild and Scenic River, and West Branch Farmington Wild and Scenic River.

Additional Information

The Interagency Wild & Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council has a webpage, http://www.rivers.gov/, that has a significant amount of valuable information regarding the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. You can also find a comprehensive list of all designated rivers with the agency responsible for management on the Wikipedia Wild and Scenic Rivers page.