Getting Wild and Scenic in the Upper Cle Elum

Under the National Wild and Scenic River Act, rivers are protected from development and federal involvement that could further harm the quality of the designated river. Unfortunately, only 1/4 of 1% of our rivers have been designated as a National Wild and Scenic River.

Cooper River Kayaking | Photo: Tom Ring

The Upper Cle Elum, Cooper, and Waptus rivers are not part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, a fact that surprises many visitors and local residents. You only have to stare into the clear depths of the Cooper River swimming hole, hike the Waptus outcroppings into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness or stroll through the wildflower meadows bordering the Upper Cle Elum wetlands to understand why; the area is prized for its beauty, diversity, and broad array of recreational opportunities. Hiking, fishing, birdwatching, camping, horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking, and more are available within the Upper Cle Elum River system, supporting the economic vitality of nearby communities and quality of life for locals.

These three rivers are also a key component of the Yakima River headwaters. They provide clean and cool water to fish and wildlife, as well as drinking and irrigation water to towns in Kittitas and Yakima counties. And thanks to fisheries restoration efforts by the Yakama Nation and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, they’re home to the first sockeye salmon to be found within the Yakima basin in more than a century! It is no wonder then that community leaders, environmental groups, and outdoor clubs feel that these rivers should be protected under a Wild and Scenic River designation.

Cle Elum River Sockeye Salmon | Photo: Tom Ring
Cle Elum River Sockeye Salmon | Photo: Tom Ring

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was signed into law in 1968 at the height of the modern dam-building era. It prohibits federal involvement in new dams, diversions, or other development that would harm a designated river’s free flowing condition, water quality or quantity, or unique values. This landmark law is the highest form of protection available to rivers in the United States, though less than ¼ of 1% of America’s rivers are currently designated.

A Wild and Scenic River designation identifies and creates a management plan to protect a river’s “outstandingly remarkable values.” These can be recreational, scenic, ecological, geological, archeological, or historic values. Anything that sets the river apart on a local, regional, or national scale is considered within the designation. The Upper Cle Elum and Waptus rivers were recommended to receive this protection by past Forest Service planning efforts, while the Cooper was found eligible for further consideration. The need for future management planning has only increased as sockeye salmon return to spawn in these rivers once again, and a growing Washington population seeks out quality recreation experiences on the East Side.

Cooper River Swimming Hole | Photo: Tom Ring
Cooper River Swimming Hole | Photo: Tom Ring

Best of all, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act mandates that communities be involved in creating a Comprehensive River Management Plan for every designated river. American Rivers is working toward designation of the Upper Cle Elum System as part of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, a comprehensive approach to water management and habitat enhancement throughout the Yakima River Basin.

This story was originally published as part of the NW League of Whitewater Racer’s newsletter.

Join us to protect wild rivers and public lands. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 2018, we are teaming up with partners to ask Congress to protect 5,000 new miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers and one million acres of riverside lands.

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