Oregon's Wild and Scenic Rivers

The National Wild and Scenic River Act

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Created by Congress in 1968, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System was enacted “to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.” The Act aims to protect and preserve the unique character and attributes of these the nation's most pristine rivers while still acknowledging their potential for use and development and encourages public participation for developing goals for river protection.

Rivers that fall under the parameters of the Act include rivers that possess outstanding scenic, recreational, geological, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other like values. Protection under the National Wild and Scenic River Act includes the prohibition of damming or otherwise altering the river in any way including hydro-power projects, bank alternation, as well as any mineral, gas, or oil extraction.

Benefits of Wild and Scenic Rivers

Aside from breathtaking views, Wild and Scenic rivers provide many benefits for wildlife and humans. Protection of these pristine waters also means protection of vital fish and wildlife habitat as well as a source of clean drinking water for humans. Prohibition of mining and dam building ensure that the river remains not only clean and intact, but is also left to flow naturally and freely so as not to disrupt wildlife. After a river is designated, a comprehensive management plan must be put into place to develop goals for the river's present and future preservation. Athough the rivers are managed by federal agencies, they rely heavily on the involvement of the surrounding community.

Many Key Oregon Rivers Lack Protection

Whether it's the South Umpqua, Steamboat Creek, coastal rivers like the Alsea and Siletz, or additions to rivers that are only partially protected like the North Fork Crooked or the Illinois,  many of our key sources of clean drinking water, recreational opportunities, and wildlife habitat remain unprotected. 

Wild and Scenic Rivers in Oregon

There are approximately 110,994 miles of river in Oregon, of which 2,424 miles are designated as Wild & Scenic—almost 2% of the state's river miles. Some of these 70+ designated rivers include the Clackamas, Deschutes, John Day, North Umpqua, and Sandy Rivers.

Oregon’s very own Rogue River was one of the original eight rivers designated in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Known for its salmon runs and rugged beauty, a portion of the Rogue River was designated October 2, 1968. In 1988 a section of the upper river was designated near Crater Lake National Park. 

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Designations Included in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

  • Wild River Areas – Those rivers or sections of rivers that are free of impoundments(dams) 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(dams), 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(dams) or diversion in the past.

Rivers may be given any one of these designations by Congress. The protection may include the whole river or a section. For federally designated rivers it includes either a quarter or half mile protection buffer on either side of the river. These rivers are managed primarily by the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in Oregon. 

National Statistics
As of 2018 the National System protects 13,416 miles of 226 rivers in 38 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico; this is less than one-quarter of one percent of the nation's rivers. By comparison, more than 75,000 large dams across the country have modified at least 600,000 miles, or about 17% of American rivers. There's much more work to be done to protect our rivers and the clean water, recreational opportunities, and wildlife habitat they provide. 

Metolius River by Leon Werdinger, Rogue River by Greg Burke