Around the riverbend
Every summer when I was a kid, my parents would pile me, my older sister, and my younger brother into the back of our Ford passenger van at five in the morning. We would dutifully sleep for most of the four hour drive to my grandparents’ home along a tributary of the Rogue River.
We simply called our summer escape “Trail,” after the tiny town up the road.
Our halcyon summer days were filled with tire swings, throwing rocks in the gulley, swimming at the waterfall, and – invariably – floating the Rogue. The rapids were probably nothing more than Class II, though I always thought the fishing was first rate. Usually, my Grandpa Blair was at the oars.
One year, carelessly perched on the high end of the raft tube, a bump in a rapid bounced me out of the boat. A lousy swimmer, I was lucky to be wearing my life vest and luckier still that my Dad’s friend pulled me back into the boat – shivering and quite scared. To this day, I can still find the stretch of the river that my family dubbed “Sean Rapids.”
My stories of Oregon rivers are, no doubt, like yours. These memories of flowing water, of casting a line for the first time, of hiking with loved ones along a riverside trail, are intertwined with my love for our state.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act and Oregon has more protected rivers than any other state in the country. When Congress passed the Act in 1968, it declared:
...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 protections afforded under the act have preserved the scenery and ecological integrity of these waterways, without which my stories and countless others would be so much the poorer. This piece of forward thinking legislation came after the era of early 20th century dam building had hit its peak, after major rivers and their native landscapes were dramatically altered. With concern for the future of wild waterways nationwide, the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act began with the designation of eight rivers, including Oregon's own Wild Rogue, safeguarding them for generations to come and opening the doors for 58 Oregon river sections to gain protected status by the federal government.
If you’ve ever been to an Oregon Wild event, you’ve probably heard us say both of the following:
- We’ve got a Wilderness deficit – with only 4% of our land given the highest level of protection by Congress – and that’s just not enough.
- But all is not lost, because we’ve got more Wild & Scenic Rivers than any other state in the union with 58!
The latter claim is a pretty exciting one to make. Oregon Wild, along with countless advocates and elected leaders, has built a truly impressive legacy when it comes to safeguarding our waterways for future generations. But still, take a look at the map and consider this: Oregon has nearly 111,000 total miles of river, of which 1,916 are designated as Wild & Scenic. That’s not even 2% of the state’s river miles.
Part of the problem is that so many rivers have been dammed, degraded, developed, and dewatered. Many of the 111,000 river miles in Oregon will need decades of careful restoration and healing to recover. In fact, a new analysis from the Center for American Progress and Conservation Science Partners finds that nearly half – 49 percent – of all river miles in the West have been modified from their natural state.
So, before we pull a muscle patting ourselves on the back, we must do our part to pass on a Wild & Scenic legacy to future Oregonians by protecting every last mile of wild, scenic, and recreational free-flowing river that we can.
And don’t worry – that’s exactly what Oregon Wild is doing. We are currently working with (and putting pressure on) the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department to designate three new State Scenic Waterways with a plan to come back for more in future years. Additionally, for two decades now it has been our practice to build expansive Wild & Scenic River proposals into all of our Wilderness campaigns. In our Ochocos National Recreation Area campaign we are proposing a huge expansion of the North Fork Crooked Wild & Scenic River, adding over 100 miles along the mainstem and key tributaries. In the Crater Lake Wilderness campaign, the list of rivers we are still vetting runs into the dozens and the miles into the hundreds!
The fact is that we all live downstream. Wild & Scenic river designations protect the rivers that run through our lives.