Rivers: a New Direction

Federal lawmakers from Oregon have taken a significant new direction in the protection of American rivers, just as river conservationists prepare to mark the 20th anniversary of the national Wild and Scenic Rivers Act today. The Oregon delegation has proposed an omnibus law that would grant protection all at once to as many as 45 Oregon streams totaling 1,800 miles.

The omnibus approach is similar to the one used in designating wilderness areas in various states. Congressional delegations from Montana and Washington now are considering possible omnibus legislation for their rivers.

Up to now, river-protection enthusiasts have had to fight mile by mile and stream by stream for incorporation into the national system. Such was the case in the past four years during the successful drive to afford wild-and-scenic status to the Tuolumne, Merced, Kings and Kern rivers in California.

In recent years the fight has been a tough one,in part because of opposition from within the Reagan Administration. Since 1981, 802 miles of river have been incorporated into the system, including more than 400 miles of the four California streams. By comparison, 5,298 miles were added during the Carter Administration, including more than 3,000 miles brought in through the Alaska lands act of 1980. In 1982 the National Park Service identified 1,524 segments of rivers running 61,700 miles in the lower 48 states that had potential for wild or scenic status. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management currently is studying rivers within its jurisdiction for recommendations.


The rivers program is growing in popularity. Broad coalitions, including both environmentalists and business people, are coming together in many states to support such legislation. One reason is the flexibility afforded by the law. Wild-river stretches normally are reached only by trail. Scenic reaches are accessible by automobile. And areas designated as recreational have even fewer restrictions.

Usually the major threat is dam construction, encouraged by the 1978 Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act that attempted to offset energy shortages with new hydroelectric dams. The law provides for a federal tax subsidy of up to 17%and guarantees the builder a market for the electricity. There has been a rush to build these hydro dams, even though the electricity is not now in demand. The utility act should be amended at the least to eliminate the unnecessary and unwarranted tax break.

The wild-rivers law was passed three years after President Lyndon B. Johnson said in his 1965 State of the Union address that the time had come to “preserve free-flowing stretches of our great scenic rivers, before growth and development make the beauty of the unspoiled waterways a memory.” While progress has been made, the full promise of Johnson’s words has yet to be fulfilled.