Soul of the Wilderness

December 2017 | Volume 23, Number 2


The world’s first and most extensive system of protected rivers began with the United States’ passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968. The 50th anniversary of that legislation in 2018 affords an opportunity to review the program’s legacy, which has grown 16-fold in mileage, and to consider its future, which continues to evolve with the changing currents of history.

The idea of a nationally safeguarded system of rivers began with wildlife biologists John and Frank Craig- head. Battling plans to dam Montana’s Middle Fork of the Flathead, these twin brothers realized that hundreds of massive dams were proposed for rivers across America and that protection would be an endless challenge of rear-guard battles unless Congress permanently set aside some of the finest natural streams to remain free-flowing (Craighead 1957).

The idea fell into the receptive hands of planner Ted Swem at the National Park Service, and of his staff, John Kauffmann and Stan Young, who in the 1960s took bold initiative on their own volition to craft a national strategy and to survey the country for the worthiest streams. Their list of 650 was whittled to 74 for further study (US Department of the Interior 1965).

With fortuitous synergy, President John F. Kennedy appointed Stewart Udall as secretary of the interior. At his new post, Udall was asked by Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine to fly over the Allagash River where a hydropower dam was proposed, and to intercede in its construction (Bennett 2002). Later, Udall canoed the similarly threatened Current River in Missouri. And then a feisty band of Idaho river aficionados approached him to halt Dworshak Dam on the North Fork Clearwater, renowned for steelhead trout. The fate of that stream had already been politically sealed, and it was dammed, but Udall recalled that “it dramatized for me the flaws and misconceptions in the dam-building philosophy of the New Deal” (Palmer 1986, p. 142).

Udall personified the upheaval in water-development philosophy of his time. As an Arizona congressman, he had supported dams that destroyed rivers. But with the help of river advocates, and inspired by the heady alchemy that effervesces when a person clutches a paddle, steps into a canoe or raft, and kicks off from shore, Udall saw with increasing clarity the need for protection. His internal conflict sparked a new approach: to balance the ubiquitous dam building of his era with conservation of the finest remaining rivers. Avoiding both paralysis and the sway of sharp-suited lobbyists who influence lesser politicians straddling the fence, Udall felt empowered by his new insight.

In a political climate hardly imaginable today, Udall saw the opportunity to build upon the Wilderness Act of 1964. “President Johnson’s chief of staff kept saying, ‘Johnson wants new legislation.’ I told him about the wild and scenic rivers idea and he said, ‘That sounds great, get it ready’” (Palmer 1993, p. 21).

Interior Department staff worked with key senators and congresspeople, including Frank Church, Gaylord Nelson, and John Saylor, to draft the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and hearings were held. Conservationists testified in support of the bill, and meanwhile the dam- building agencies culled some of the rivers they wanted the most. At a July 3, 1968, hearing, fist-pounding representative Sam Steiger from Arizona growled, “Under the guise of protecting scenic values, this legislation will stifle progress, inhibit economic development and incur a staggering expenditure.”

But Udall knew the opposition well. In Arizona, he had grown up with them. “We had the momentum,” he recalled to me, “and the dam people who didn’t like it just weren’t in a frame of mind to fight it. I looked them in the eye and said, “We’re going to balance things off.’”

Robert Eastman, later director of rivers programs for the Interior Department, reflected, “Back then, if you had a good idea, you could put it to work.” Ted Swem also wistfully reflected, “I don’t know if we’ll ever have a period like that again” (Palmer 1993, p. 25).

With bipartisanship now forgotten, the Senate voted unanimously for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act while the House voted in favor 265 to 7, and on October 2, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law. It specified that rivers having “outstandingly remarkable” qualities for “scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values shall be preserved in free-flowing condition.” Rivers can be of any size, and new designations are to be enacted by Congress or by the secretary of the interior if a governor asks for it. Eight major rivers plus four of their tributaries were designated. In addition, 27 rivers were listed for study and possible inclusion later (US Congress 1968).

Foremost, the act bans damsand other federal developments that would damage the specified streams. When federal permits are required for developments by other entities, the act also bars approval of damaging projects such as private hydroelectric dams. Under the act, rivers are classified as wild, scenic, or recreational, depending on the extent of houses, roads, or facilities already there. For federal land, the “wild” designation precludes logging and new mining claims within a corridor averaging one-quarter mile from each bank. Regulation of private land use is not allowed under the act, but it encourages local governments to zone private acreage. Designation does not prescribe open space acquisition, but it can encourage it through required management plans (US Department of the Interior 1982). The Wild and Scenic Rivers pro- gram was launched, but establishing a larger estate of protected streams had only begun.

Toward a Greater System

Congress’s explicit intention was to add more rivers to the system (US House of Representatives 1968). The required studies, however, involved a lengthy process. In the East, landowners objected to federal engagement, no matter how minor. In the West, proposals for rivers through federal land ran onto the reef of dam-building congresspeople or those with an unfounded fear of losing private water rights.

Disappointed but determined, 33 conservationists met in Denver in 1973 to strategize for moving the Wild and Scenic vision forward. Recognizing that no established groups would carry the ball, they created the American Rivers Conservation Council (later called American Rivers) with the explicit goal of adding rivers to the national system (Palmer 1993).

As a test case, the budding organization adopted North Carolina’s New River – a hopeless situation by any definition. A hydropower corporation had already secured federal permits for a dam, bought the land, and evicted residents. With Bill Painter as a staff of one, American Rivers became the Washington, D.C., connection for residents and state officials still resist- ing the dam. Against all odds, they prevailed, winning Wild and Scenic designation by the interior secretary in 1976 (Palmer 1986).

Also during this era, a dam pro- posed for the lower half of the Snake River was stalled when Sierra Club lawyer Brock Evans filed a last-minute appeal. Resulting delays allowed time for a multiyear conservation cam- paign, and monolithic support for the dam devolved to the point that Idaho governor Cecil Andrus declared it would only be built “over my dead body” (Palmer 1992). Wild and Scenic designation there secured the biggest whitewater in the West next to the Grand Canyon. Other important early designations included the All gash in Maine, Chattooga in Georgia, and Middle Fork Flathead where the Craighead brothers had formulated the Wild and Scenic idea.

Figure 1 – Idaho governor Cecil Andrus declared a dam proposed for the lower half of the Snake River would only be built “over my dead body.” Photo by Tim Palmer.

The tedious process of study, public engagement, and political negotiation thwarted designation of many worthy rivers, but then the program blossomed when California representative Phillip Burton stepped onto the stage. This master of old-school politics coerced where he could not convince and in 1978 pushed through the largest package of land protection ever assembled to that date. It designated six major rivers including Washington’s Skagit, California’s North Fork American, and Pennsylvania’s Delaware, where construction of Tocks Island Dam loomed. Dubbed “parks barrel,” this bill with 144 conservation projects borrowed from the developers’ “pork barrel” packaging of multiple dams, setting a pattern for the future. Advances would typically come with multiple rivers designated at once, followed by periods of limited activity.

In California, wild and scenic enactment under a 1972 state law had evaded plans to dam the Middle Fork Eel and safeguarded a lineup of exquisite streams. State action, however, does not necessarily preclude federal dams, so Governor Jerry Brown in 1980 requested that Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus fold the state wild and scenic rivers into the national system. Agency planners worked around the clock draft- ing the mandatory Environmental Impact Statement with a six-month deadline to the end of the Carter administration. Needing not to win but only delay, California’s water and timber industries appealed the plan in multiple federal courts. Months turned into weeks, then days. With 15 hours remaining until the start of the Reagan administration, Andrus signed this momentous Wild and Scenic proclamation, protecting four major rivers and many tributaries in northern California (Palmer 2017).

Another great leap came with the Oregon omnibus bill of 1988. Seeking to add a conservation legacy to a career of unwavering support for the timber industry, Senator Mark Hatfield picked up a Pacific Rivers Council proposal and sponsored 53 rivers and tributaries flowing mostly through public land and already found eligible for protection in Forest Service resource plans – a strategy repeated in 1992 in Michigan with 22 rivers and in Arkansas with 8 (Thomas 2014).

Meanwhile, to create another on-ramp for designations, American Rivers and others had urged President Jimmy Carter to declare an executive order under section 5(d)(1) of the act directing federal agencies to consider Wild and Scenic River status for streams through public land. Ultimately this resulted in hundreds of waterways being temporarily protected when found eligible for designation. Likewise, with analysis led by Bern Collins of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, the Carter directive adopted a Nationwide Rivers Inventory (NRI) that identified 2.9% of America’s river and stream mileage meeting qualitative requirements of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (US Department of the Interior 2016; American Rivers 2000). The NRI rivers became a “farm club” for future designations and received special review from Park Service personnel when developments by federal agencies posed threats (US Council on Environmental Quality 1980).

The difficulties of protecting streams through private land spawned a new approach eventually called “Partnership” rivers. Facing landowner opposition, including violence along the Delaware in 1978, planners with the National Park Service reasoned that along most eastern waters you get nowhere without the support of residents. Talented planners including Glenn Eugster, Rolf Diamont, Drew Parkin, and others in the Northeast crafted an approach that prioritized involvement of local people, formalized river plans before the designations occurred rather than afterward, minimized land acquisition, and aided local governments in hiring stewards to lead continuing efforts. Mostly in New England, the Partnership program became a center for the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System’s growth in the 1990s and beyond (Fosburg et al. 2008).

Another major advance came in2009 as efforts in Wyoming, Idaho, and California were collected into an American Rivers campaign to designate 40 rivers for the 40th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Act.

Beyond questions of a water- way’s designation, the management of streams after their enrollment is critically important for protecting “outstandingly remarkable” values as mandated in the law. Administration and management are assigned to one of four federal agencies – the Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, or Fish and Wild- life Service – or to the relevant state. Some rivers – for example, the Rogue, North Umpqua, Obed, Tuolumne, and Chattooga – exemplify success in recreation management. Others languish. Required management plans fail to be updated and implemented despite growing threats. With constant turnover, some agency personnel lack adequate training, and dedicated staff are swamped with competing duties from recreation to fire suppression while budgets have shrunk (Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council 1998). Small streams, such as Oregon’s Elk, have virtually no Wild and Scenic program on the ground, and others, such as Idaho’s Lochsa, have been embroiled in controversy about the mandates of managing agencies (Stahl 2015).

A National Park Service survey in 2007 humbly graded management of rivers in their program with a C, Partnership units a B, and state- administered rivers an F. In 2016, the Forest Service concluded that less than 40% of its designated streams met planning and management standards. Having led the Park Service’s efforts from 1983 to 2004, John Haubert said, “The failure of Federal agencies and local and State governments to fulfill their management obligations is my greatest disappointment” (Palmer 2017).

Reflecting on a rich history of river conservation

Starting with the original eight rivers designated in 1968, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System has grown to 208 major rivers. Many of these include multiple tributaries. In all, 495 named rivers and tributaries account for approximately 13,000 miles (20,921 km).

Oregon, California, and Alaska have 70% of the total number of designated rivers. Oregon has the most (59) Alaska has the greatest mileage (3,427 [5,515 km]). The longest reach is Alaska’s Noatak at 372 miles (599 km). Longest in the lower 48 is the combined Namekagon-Saint Croix, 200 continuous miles (322 km) excepting a few small dams. The greatest concentration of protected rivers flow in coastal Oregon and California, where the basins of back- to-back designated streams extend 260 miles (418 km) north–south.

Although the act was largely inspired by the need to safeguard rivers for recreation, over time motives have broadened to address other provisions of the law. Protection of native fish was highlighted with the Smith in California in 1980, Oregon rivers in 1988, and Snake River head- waters in 2009. Endangered species became a reason for designation of the Sespe in California, Middle Fork Vermilion in Illinois, and Rio Icacos in Puerto Rico. Motives expanded to ecosystem protection with the Skagit in Washington. Community, cultural, and  historical  values underpin many Partnership rivers. Recognizing the limits of managing thin corridors, multiple tributaries were added in a watershed approach for Alaska’s Fortymile, California’s Smith, and several Partnership rivers including Connecticut’s Eightmile.

The variable winds of politics have affected the program’s growth, especially with acute polarization after 1980. What began with bipartisan support became largely dependent on Democratic Congresses and presidents, except for Ronald Reagan, whose hand was forced by a Democratic Congress.

In 1983, I had the chance to ask some of the founders of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System to reflect on its progress. John Craig- head said, “I never expected it to grow so much.” Stewart Udall said that he was “very pleased” with the results,” although he added that the system was “incomplete” when com- pared to America’s national parks and designated wilderness areas (Palmer 1993, p. 63).

Indeed, considering the most explicit and motivating goal of the original legislation – to stop dams – the program hit a grand slam. Impending dams were halted on the New, Snake, Tuolumne, Niobrara, Delaware, Allagash, Feather, and other streams. No section of a protected river has been deleted to allow for a dam (although California’s Merced is currently threatened). Additional goals have been met by improving recreation management, limiting logging in federal wild river corridors, and aiding municipalities with zoning, setbacks, and access.

Figure 2 – Motives have broadened to address provisions besides recreation. Protection of native fish was highlighted with the Smith River, California, in 1980. Photo by Tim Palmer.

It’s a strong record, yet the United States, including Alaska, has 2.9 million miles (4,667,098 km) of rivers and perennial streams. The Wild and Scenic share is only 0.4% – hardly the bill’s prescribed “complement” to the plethora of developed waters. Consider, 80,000 sizable dams have been built on nearly every major stream out- side Alaska, and one-third of the total river mileage is significantly polluted (US Environmental Protection Agency 2000). Most of the rest are diminished by channelization, diversions, or floodplain development. Only about 3% of the nation’s stream mileage was found in the NRI to have qualities necessary for Wild and Scenic status (US Department of the Interior 1982).

Only 24 of 74 classic rivers identified by Interior Department planners in their original 1964 survey have been designated, omitting landmarks such as Utah’s Green, Montana’s Yellowstone, and New York’s upper Hudson. Furthermore, growth of the system has slowed, and designations of sizable streams have been thwarted. The system includes 27 reaches longer than 100 miles (161 km) – every one of them inducted before 1989.

Important players in the field of river conservation have expressed disappointment that the system has not encompassed all of America’s geographic provinces; subregions of the Great Plains, Midwest, and South are especially lacking. After working on the program for years with the Department of the Interior and then as head of American Rivers, Kevin Coyle said, “The Wild and Scenic program has never really lived up to its promise. The system should be more robust and widespread. The rivers have never been embraced like National Parks, Refuges, or Wilderness Areas” (Palmer 2017).

Yet, the Wild and Scenic glass is arguably half full – or more – and the program has spawned related advances reaching far beyond designated streams. Retired from leadership roles at American Rivers, the National Park Service, and Forest Service, Chris Brown said, “Above its immediate success in safeguard- ing rivers, the Wild and Scenic Act ignited a movement and shifted the balance of river development and conservation in ways that spawned far more: the birth of American Rivers, the establishment of state wild and scenic systems, formation of watershed associations, support for water quality, and reform of planning for rivers through federal land” (Palmer 2017).

Looking to the future

Conservation groups continue to work on campaigns to add worthy streams to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. American Rivers now seeks to safeguard a suite of Montana candidates totaling 600 miles (966 km) (Montanans for Healthy Rivers), while American Whitewater proposes a stunning radial complex of arteries flowing from Washington’s Olympic Mountains (Wild Olympics Campaign). The Partnership program in the Northeast has nurtured grassroots support for a waiting list of streams primed for study and enactment.

Efforts are needed to safeguard the most classic of America’s natural waterways that have been politically entangled in the past. Further, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System can be used to address imminent threats in the age of global warming by recognizing streams flowing from cool northern aspects of mountain ranges, from glaciers and snowfields, from cold spring sources, and from deep shade of intact forests. All of these nourish imperiled cold-water fish.

From a larger perspective, resilience to the changing climate is buttressed by river conservation measures: tree-shading buffers along the waters’ edges, expanded floodplain zoning to accommodate intensifying floods, reinstatement of minimum if not optimum flows to combat droughts and rising water temperatures, and linkage of nature preserves with the vital connective tissue of riparian habitat. River conservationists have shouldered these tasks for decades; now, with climate change, all are increasingly essential, and the Wild and Scenic program offers a ready template for organization and execution of those conservation strategies.

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System was founded with impressive imagination and determination. Fueled by multiple generations of dedicated public servants and conservationists, it has safeguarded many of our best streams. Now, at the 50th anniversary of America’s premier river protection program, all those who are drawn to visions dating from the Craighead brothers’ spirited dam fight at the Middle Fork Flathead can reflect, engage, and commit to another half century of care and stewardship for rivers that serve not only ourselves, but all of life.

TIM PALMER has been involved with the Wild and Scenic Rivers System almost since its founding. His 1993 book, The Wild and Scenic Rivers of America, was updated and rewritten in 2017 as Wild and Scenic Rivers. An American Legacy. See his work at


American Rivers. 2000. The Nationwide Rivers Inventory: Evaluation of a River Conservation Tool. White paper. Washington, DC: American Rivers.

Bennett, D. B. 2002. The Wilderness from Chamberlain Farm. Washington, DC: Island Press. Craighead, J. 1957. Wild river. Montana Wildlife. June.

Fosburgh, J., J., DiBello, and F. Akers. 2008. Partnership Wild and Scenic Rivers. The George Wright Forum 25(2): 42.

Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council. 1998. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act 30th Anniversary Forum – Moving to Action. Final Meeting Report.

Palmer, T. 1986. Endangered Rivers and the Conservation Movement. Washington, DC: Island Press.

———. 1992. The Snake River: Window to the West. Washington, DC: Island Press.

———. 1993. The Wild and Scenic Rivers of America. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Palmer, Tim, 2017. Wild and Scenic Rivers: An American Legacy. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press.

Stahl, G. 2015. Idaho Rivers United. Press release. Federal judge: Forest Service has authority to regulate megaloads.

Thomas, C. 2014. Evolution of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act: A History of Substantive Amendments, 1968–2013. Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council, National Park Service, Anchorage, Alaska.

US Congress. 1968. Public Law 90-542. October 2.

US Council on Environmental Quality. 1980. Interagency Consultation to Avoid or Mitigate Adverse Effects on Rivers in the Nationwide Inventory. President’s Directive, August 10, 1980.

US Department of the Interior. 1982. The Nationwide Rivers Inventory. White paper.

———. 2016. Nationwide Rivers Inventory. National Park Service list of inventoried rivers. Retrieved from http://www.nps. gov/ncrc/programs/rtca/nri/index.html.

US Department of the Interior and Department

of Agriculture. 1965. Wild Rivers. Booklet. US Environmental Protection Agency. 2000. National Water Quality Inventory, ii.

Retrieved from waterdata/2004-national-water-quality- inventory-report-congress.

US House of Representatives. 1968. Providing for a National Scenic Rivers System, and for Other Purposes. Report 1623.

Wild and Scenic Rivers Task Force. 2007. Wild and Scenic Rivers: Charting the Course. National Park Service. Retrieved from