Beyond Banning Dams: Wild and Scenic Designations


The movement to protect the nation’s remaining free-flowing rivers was born out of America’s “big dam” era from the 1930s to the 1960s. Concerned at the rapid pace of development of many of the country’s rivers for power, flood control, and irrigation, people across the United States acted to ensure that at least some of the nation’s most treasured rivers would remain in their natural state. In 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed into law, stating:

“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. The Congress declares that the established national policy of dam and other construction at appropriate sections of the rivers of the United States needs to be complemented by a policy that would preserve other selected rivers or sections thereof in their free-flowing condition to protect the water quality of such rivers and to fulfill other national conservation purposes.”

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act passed by Congress in 1968 included eight rivers in the original legislation.  Today, the national Wild and Scenic Rivers System includes 252 rivers.  Communities and local governments came together to recognize the importance of these natural resources: they took the key first step of designating the rivers.  But what happens to the rivers after designation – what tangible benefits has Wild and Scenic River designation brought to these rivers?

The most well-known and tangible protection of Wild and Scenic River designation is a direct ban on dams and other water projects licensed under the Federal Power Act, or any other federally-assisted water project that would have a “direct and adverse” effect on the river’s free-flowing character, water quality, or outstanding values. But there are many other important, less easily-quantified benefits that result from Wild and Scenic River designation.

This report compiles a number of specific examples of the ways in which designation has effected positive change for rivers, beyond banning dams and other harmful federally-assisted water projects. It focuses mainly on river systems in the Northwest, but includes examples from other parts of the country.  While designation can benefit a river in a wide variety of ways, this report focuses on three general areas through which designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act brings resources to protect the free-flowing character, water quality and outstanding values of rivers.  Profiled rivers are organized into the section that describes the primary benefit Wild and Scenic River designation has brought to the river.

Section One discusses the management planning required for designated rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.  Each river designated as Wild and Scenic is required to undergo a comprehensive planning process involving all interested river stakeholders that yields a formal management plan for the river.  Among other results, this plan encourages managing agencies to pursue more “river-friendly” solutions; for example, employing organic materials such as downed trees in restoration projects instead of rock and concrete, or natural materials instead of riprap for bank stabilization.  The management plan also serves to coordinate efforts by different agencies at the local, state and federal levels.  Local communities and individuals help to develop the management plan, and they can use the guidance provided in the plan to become better stewards of the river.

Section Two examines rivers where Wild and Scenic River designation has generated an increase in public awareness and appreciation of the river.  Increased knowledge of the importance of the river can foster goodwill in the community and be a positive, powerful force for river restoration.  Public interest and support can also bring together stakeholders with diverse interests that might not otherwise cooperate, for the sake of the river. 

Section Three explores areas where designation has resulted in increased funding for protection, restoration and management of the river.  In many cases, designation will prioritize a particular river project in the eyes of government agencies and other funding organizations.  Because a Wild and Scenic River has been vetted through the designation process and has a management plan in place, funding agencies know their money is more likely to be used effectively. The increased public awareness generated by designation can also help to bring additional funds to a Wild and Scenic River; people who care about the river can be powerful and effective lobbyists for additional funding to better manage, protect and restore the river.