This is the first part in a two-part series on the next wild and scenic rivers bill for Oregon. Part 1 focuses on the nuts and bolts of what a wild and scenic river is, while Part 2 will help you nominate your favorite stream(s) for congressional consideration.
Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) is asking his constituents to nominate possible new wild and scenic rivers for Oregon. You have until January 20, 2020. This opportunity is unprecedented and potentially historic. All hands on deck!
Wyden vs. Hatfield in re Wild and Scenic Rivers
Wyden has led Congress to establish 373 miles of national wild and scenic rivers (WSRs) in Oregon since he began representing the state in the U.S. Senate. That’s far behind Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR), who during his three decades in the Senate brought home 1,790 miles of wild and scenic rivers to Oregon. To be fair, one should also consider that Wyden voted for another 1,611 miles of WSRs while he was in the House of Representatives, for a congressional total of 1,984 miles. To be even more fair, for most of those miles Wyden championed in the House, there were other House champions as well, so chief leadership credit needs to be apportioned. In the Senate, Wyden is the un-asterisked champion for his Oregon wild and scenic river miles.
It may well be that Wyden’s next wild and scenic rivers bill for Oregon will place him as the unqualified Oregon (and national) wild and scenic rivers champion in terms of protected stream miles. Yet Hatfield’s record-sized Omnibus Oregon Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1988 was pioneering in several ways. First and foremost was the sheer number of streams and miles protected. Before Hatfield’s 1988 bill, Congress was in the habit of first enacting an Act of Congress requiring the administering agency to study whether a stream should even be a WSR. If the answer was in the affirmative, then another Act of Congress was required to actually protect it. Hatfield swept all that aside by instantly protecting scores of streams in one bill at one time.
The Oregon of 1988 had far fewer stream-loving voters than the Oregon of thirty-one years later. A WSR bill of 1,440 miles was a much greater political lift in 1988 than it would be in 2020. Just how much greener is the Oregon electorate now is hard to say. However, if we use the consumer price index as a surrogate for the greening of the Oregon electorate, it would take Wyden doing 3,084 WSR miles in his next bill to meet Hatfield’s getting 1,440 WSR miles in 1988. Inflation during that time period has been rather moderate and probably underestimates Oregon voter greenness.
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act
In 1968, Congress enacted the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA), which began in unusually poetic terms:
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 dam 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.
When signing the bill, President Lyndon Johnson said:
In the past fifty years, we have learned—all too slowly, I think—to prize and protect God’s precious gifts. Because we have, our own children and grandchildren will come to know and come to love the great forests and the wild rivers that we have protected and left to them. . . . An unspoiled river is a very rare thing in this nation today. Their flow and vitality have been harnessed by dams and too often they have been turned into open sewers by communities and by industries. It makes us all very fearful that all rivers will go this way unless somebody acts now to try to balance our river development.
The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System
Today, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System (NWSRS) contains 242 units, totaling 13,473 miles (0.38 percent of the nation’s streams) in forty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The lower Rogue Wild and Scenic River was established in 1968 as one of the original WSRA rivers. The latest Oregon additions came in early 2019.
The WSRA both designates WSRs and classifies WSRs into one of three categories, either in the enabling legislation or in the management plan for the WSR:
Wild river areas. 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.
Scenic river areas. 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.
Recreational river areas. 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.
In brief, wild river areas have no roads, scenic river areas are crossed by an occasional road, and recreational river areas are paralleled by a road or roads. From a protection standpoint, only on federal lands within wild segments is new mining prevented. The classification does not allow an administering agency to deviate from its duty to “protect and enhance” the outstandingly remarkable values for which a stream is designated.
Protection Conferred by Wild and Scenic River Status
A congressionally protected wild and scenic river has only two absolute bans:
No water projects (dams, diversions, and such). This total ban applies not only to projects that would “invade” within a wild and scenic river but also to projects that would “unreasonably diminish” the outstandingly remarkable values for which the river was protected.
No new mining claims on federal lands within wild-classified streams. For those segments classified as “wild” and only on federal land, no new mining claims can be filed. Existing claims, if they are actually valid existing rights (a high bar), can be mined.
Protection against other bad things such as logging, roading, grazing, off-road vehicle abuse, and over-recreation on federal public lands is afforded not by any flat ban but by a congressionally directed affirmative duty of the managing agency to administer the wild and scenic river “in such manner as to protect and enhance the values which caused it to be included in said system.” Thus, what is generally allowed or not allowed in a WSR is specifically tied to whether it protects and enhances the outstandingly remarkable values for which the WSR was included in the NWSRS.
The WSRA does not affect land use on nonfederal lands within a WSR corridor.
Oregon and the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System
Today, Oregon has the most units of the NWSRS, though Alaska has more stream miles and the most protected area along those designated streams. As far as percentage of streams in a state protected as national wild and scenic rivers, Oregon comes in fifth (1.925 percent), behind New Jersey (4.367 percent), Delaware (4.102 percent), Rhode Island (3.951 percent), and Connecticut (2.696 percent)
Oregon has 28 percent of NWSRS units and 16 percent of its mileage. Oregon has the nation’s shortest WSR at 0.4 miles, which also happens to be the first subterranean WSR (the River Styx in Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve, though the Upper Rogue WSR does flow under a lava bridge).
In Part 2, you’ll learn how you can nominate your favorite stream(s) for congressional consideration as a wild and scenic river.