FAQ about Wild & Scenic Rivers

FAQ about Wild & Scenic Rivers

1. Why did Congress pass the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act?
Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act at the height of the modern dam-building era in order to ensure that the construction of new dams is balanced with the protection of select free-flowing rivers that possess nationally significant values. This landmark law is the highest form of protection for rivers in the United States. In the words of Congress: “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.”

2. How does the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protect rivers?
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protects rivers in five major ways:
• It bans the construction of new federally-licensed dams and other harmful water development projects;
• it ensures water quality is maintained and, where possible, enhanced;
• it creates a federally-reserved water right for the minimum amount of water necessary to maintain a river’s special values;
• it restricts activities that would harm a river’s special values;
• and it requires the development of a Comprehensive River Management Plan (CRMP) to guide management along designated rivers for a period of 10-20 years.

3. Are there different classifications under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that reflect the condition of a river at the time it is designated?
Designated rivers are classified in one of three categories depending upon the extent of development and accessibility along each section:

  • Wild rivers are free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive, and waters unpolluted.
  • Scenic rivers are free of impoundments with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive, and shorelines largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads. These segments are more developed than “wild” rivers and less developed than “recreational” rivers.
  • Recreational rivers are readily accessible by road or railroad, may have some development along their shoreline, and may have undergone some impoundment or diversion in the past.

4. How many rivers are in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System?
As of September 2011, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System includes 203 river segments comprising 12,598 river miles. That translates to approximately 0.4% of the river miles in the United States. By comparison, more than 75,000 large dams have modified at least 600,000 miles of rivers across the country, or approximately 17% of the river miles in the United States.

5. How are rivers added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System? Typically, a river becomes Wild and Scenic first by being categorized as “eligible” for designation by the appropriate land management agency (Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, etc.), although Congress has designated rivers that were not previously found eligible for protection. Any section of river that is free-flowing and possesses one or more “outstandingly remarkable values” can be found eligible for Wild and Scenic protection. Rivers can be added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in one of two ways. The most common way is for Congress to pass Wild and Scenic legislation that is signed into law by the president. The less traditional way is for the governor of a state to petition the secretary of the interior to add a river to the system.

6. How does Wild and Scenic designation affect public access to rivers for fishing, hunting, camping and other forms of recreation?
Wild and Scenic designation neither limits the public from accessing public lands within designated river corridors nor opens private lands to public access. Designation has no effect on fishing and hunting, as those activities are regulated under state laws. Where hunting and fishing were allowed prior to designation, they may continue. In general, Wild and Scenic designation does not restrict boating access unless specific issues have been identified in the river management planning process.

7. Is livestock grazing allowed in Wild and Scenic river corridors?
Generally, livestock grazing and related infrastructure are not affected by Wild and Scenic designation, with the caveat that agricultural practices should be similar in nature and intensity to those present in the river corridor at the time of designation.

8. Does the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act restrict development on private lands within designated river corridors?
No. Under the act, the federal government has no authority to regulate or zone private lands. Land use controls on private lands are solely a matter of state and local zoning. Although the act includes provisions encouraging the protection of river values through state and local land use planning, there are no binding provisions on local governments. In the absence of state or local river protection provisions, the federal government may seek to protect values by providing technical assistance, entering into agreements with landowners and/or through the purchase of easements, exchanges or acquisition of private lands.

9. How does Wild and Scenic designation affect water rights?
Wild and Scenic designation has no effect on existing valid water rights or interstate water compacts. Existing irrigation systems and other water development facilities are not disturbed. Alterations to existing systems and new water projects that require a federal permit may be allowed as long as they don’t have an adverse effect on the values of the river.

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