Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, Part 2: Rounding It Out and Cleaning It Up (For Oregon, If Not Elsewhere)

This is the second part of a two-part examination of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. In Part 1, we examined the history of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, the size of the system and how it works, and the outsized role Oregon has played in the development of the system. In Part 2, we examine the possibilities of protecting additional wild and scenic rivers with a focus on Oregon, and closing a notorious mining loophole in the original act.

 Figure 1.  The Nestucca Oregon scenic waterway is not also a national wild and scenic river. Yet.  Source: Erik Fernandez, Oregon Wild (first appeared in   Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness  ).

Figure 1. The Nestucca Oregon scenic waterway is not also a national wild and scenic river. Yet. Source: Erik Fernandez, Oregon Wild (first appeared in Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness).

Pending Oregon Legislation

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has sponsored and Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has cosponsored the Oregon Wildlands Act (S.1548, 115th Congress). It has yet to receive further action in Congress. An earlier incarnation, the Oregon Treasures Act of 2013 (S.353, 113th Congress), did pass out of committee but never received a vote on the Senate floor.

The Oregon Wildlands Act—in addition to establishing the first two BLM-administered national recreation areas, expanding the Wild Rogue Wilderness, and establishing the Devils Staircase Wilderness—would establish ten new and expand two (the Rogue and the Elk) wild and scenic rivers (~245.9 miles). For the Rogue and the Elk WSRs, it would add numerous tributaries to the already-protected main stems. Almost all of the outstandingly remarkable values of these main stem WSRs are dependent upon the tributaries, for water quality and quantity, for fish habitat, for scenery, and much more. The Oregon Wildlands Act would also ban mining and damming of some tributaries of the Rogue River (~19.7 miles). In total, it would elevate the conservation status of ~300,000 acres of federal public lands in Oregon.

Specifically, as drafted the legislation would

• establish the Molalla Wild and Scenic River (21.3 miles),

• establish the Nestucca Wild and Scenic River (~15.5 miles) (Figure 1),

• establish the Walker Creek Wild and Scenic River (~2.0 miles),

• establish the North Fork Silver Creek Wild and Scenic River (~6.0 miles),

• establish the Jenny Creek Wild and Scenic River (~17.6 miles),

• establish the Spring Creek Wild and Scenic River (~1.1 miles),

• establish the Lobster Creek Wild and Scenic River (~5.0 miles),

• establish the Elk Creek Wild and Scenic River (7.3 miles),

• establish the Franklin Creek Wild and Scenic River (4.5 miles),

• establish the Wasson Creek Wild and Scenic River (10.5 miles),

• expand the Rogue Wild and Scenic River (~121.0 miles, including thirty-seven tributary streams: Kelsey, East Fork Kelsey, Whisky, East Fork Whisky, West Fork Whisky, Big Windy, East Fork Big Windy, Little Windy, Howard, Mule, Anna, Missouri, Jenny, Rum, East Fork Rum, Wildcat, Montgomery, Hewitt, Bunker, Dulog, Quail, Meadow, Russian, Alder, Booze, Bronco, Copsey, Corral, Ditch, Francis, Bailey, Shady, Slide, Quartz, North Fork Galice, and Galice Creeks, and Long Gulch),

• expand the Elk Wild and Scenic River (~52. miles, including twelve tributary streams: Blackberry, Panther, Bald Mountain, South Bald Mountain, Rock, Platinum, West Fork Panther, East Fork Panther, Lost, Milbury, McCurdy, and Bear Creeks),

• prevent the mining or damming of 19.7 miles of Rogue River tributaries (portions of Kelsey Creek, Grave Creek, Centennial Gulch, and Quail Creek), and

• prevent mining in the Chetco Wild and Scenic River and elevate the classification of certain segments.

In the House of Representatives, Representative Kurt Schrader (D-5th-OR) has introduced his Molalla River Wild and Scenic Rivers Act  (H.R. 1056, 115th Congress), but it has seen no action in this Congress. His Oregon colleagues Peter DeFazio (D-4th-OR), Earl Blumenauer (D-3rd-OR), and Suzanne Bonamici (D-1st-OR) are consponsors. Representative Greg Walden (R-2nd-OR) is not. The bill was first introduced in 2009 but has yet to become law.

 Figure 2.  Most, but not all, of the Illinois Wild and Scenic River is also an Oregon scenic waterway . Source: Ken Crocker (first appeared in   Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness  ).

Figure 2. Most, but not all, of the Illinois Wild and Scenic River is also an Oregon scenic waterway. Source: Ken Crocker (first appeared in Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness).

Closing the Mining Loophole

Unless a wild and scenic river is classified as “wild” (no roads), mining claims on federal lands within the management corridor can still be filed. If classified as “scenic” (a road crossing or two) or “recreational” (a road along it), a WSR can be defiled by mining, notwithstanding the congressional command to “protect and enhance.”

This is a problem in many places but most acutely on Oregon’s Chetco WSR, where suction dredge mining threatens to harm salmon and water quality—both outstandingly remarkable values for which the Chetco was designated. Local conservationists were able to obtain temporary administrative withdrawal of the scenic and recreational segments of the Chetco from the application of the federal mining laws, but the Trump administration will not renew the withdrawal. Senators Wyden and Merkley have legislation pending in Congress to withdraw those Chetco segments from mining, but the legislation is stymied by the Republican majority.

Rather than withdrawing from mining all federal lands in any WSR, WSRA authorized the administering agencies to issue regulations that would limit mining to protect outstandingly remarkable values. It has never happened in the fifty years of WSRA. Instead, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have somewhat relied on doing periodic twenty-year administrative withdrawals of some—but far from all— scenic- or recreational-classified streams under a provision of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.

Such administrative withdrawals are bureaucratically intensive and contingent upon a sympathetic administration. Because these withdrawals do take a lot of bureaucratic effort, most agencies don’t routinely withdraw federal public lands that they believe have low or no mineral potential. The problem with that is that mineral prices can go up and new technologies can bring costs down, allowing the filing of new claims, which would be grandfathered into any subsequent withdrawal.

Senators Wyden and Merkley have legislation that would ban new mining claims in new WSRs they are proposing, regardless of classification. They should introduce legislation to close the WSRA loophole for all existing and future wild and scenic rivers by extending “Oregon protection” at least for Oregon WSRs, if not nationally.

Quantifying Political Legacies

History remembers, or at least I hope it does.

Table 1 records the mileage of wild and scenic rivers voted upon by each current member and some former members of the Oregon congressional delegation. There is still time to improve those totals. Senator Wyden, if one generously includes the rivers he voted for during his service in the House of Representatives, still comes up 54 miles short of Senator Hatfield. It’s the Senate mileage that really counts. If the Oregon Wildlands Act is enacted into law as drafted, Wyden would take the delegation lead, again if one takes House service into consideration. However, senior senator to senior senator, Wyden has a long way to go. I have a list for Wyden to surpass Hatfield before he leaves office.

 Table 1.  Wild and Scenic River rankings of the Oregon congressional delegation . Source: The Larch Company.

Table 1. Wild and Scenic River rankings of the Oregon congressional delegation. Source: The Larch Company.

Currently, less than 1 percent of Oregon streams, by mileage, are included in the NWSRS. An estimated additional 10,000 miles (less than 3 percent of the total mileage) of Oregon streams are eligible for inclusion in the NWSRS.

For More Information

The go-to government source for most things wild and scenic rivers is www.rivers.gov. My wild and scenic riverswebpage has links to various sources of information on wild and scenic rivers. Oregon’s own Tim Palmerof Port Orford has written several fine books on wild and scenic rivers—nationally, in Oregon, and elsewhere.

 Figure 3.  Brice Creek on the Umpqua National Forest qualifies for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System even though the stream has not been recognized by the Forest Service for its outstandingly remarkable whitewater boating.  Source: David Stone, Wildland Photography (first appeared in   Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness  ).

Figure 3. Brice Creek on the Umpqua National Forest qualifies for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System even though the stream has not been recognized by the Forest Service for its outstandingly remarkable whitewater boating. Source: David Stone, Wildland Photography (first appeared in Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness).