Specific ways to protect rivers within your local land management plan

Getting rivers protection into the plan

A federal agency’s land management plan guides all decisions and actions undertaken during the life of the plan (15-20 years). Getting important river details into a new or revised plan is thus essential to securing, monitoring, and enforcing administrative protection for rivers.

Some Forest Service and BLM determinations and recommendations can lead to legislative action by Congress; meanwhile, they can serve as interim protection.

The more immediate and enduring value of those measures is the day-to-day protection they render for rivers. For most rivers, this administrative care (especially wild and scenic eligibility or suitability) may be the only long-term protection provided.

At a glance – getting rivers protection in the plan

At a glance – other techniques

Know your river

Federal land management agencies (national forests, Bureau of Land Management field offices, for example) have diverse responsibility for large landscapes and, as a result, may be limited in their specific knowledge of particular rivers and their corridors. Your local expertise and experience with specific rivers therefore becomes a valuable, and influential, tool in influencing an agency’s planning and management decisions.

Systematically gather and document what you know about the rivers for which you are advocating protection. This information should include scientifically confirmed data, but it also can—and should—include stories and descriptions from personal experience, and direct research and field investigations undertaken by you and your fellow advocates.

Nicholas Tonelli
Scenic and Recreational Upper Delaware River

Provide useful, timely information

Your knowledge, research, and materials can be very influential as federal agencies prepare their management plans. Be sure your input is accurate, thorough, well documented, clearly presented, and timely.

  • Narrative descriptions of individual rivers and the land along them
  • Citizen reports from field experience and from first-hand measurements
  • Photographs and other visual representations of the river’s unique features (variously prepare these in both electronic format for easy delivery and presentation and in printed format for eye-catching public displays)
  • Inventory of sensitive, rare, or unique plant and animal species (first-hand or from documented professional sources)
  • Academic and scientific documentation, including references and bibliographies of scientific analyses of the rivers and their corridors (colleges/universities, state natural areas programs, wildlife agencies, Endangered Species Act listings and candidates, among others)

See list of scientific resources.

  • Baseline information on river and river corridor conditions that have changed since the current management plan was implemented—including new potential threats to rivers and corridors, as well as newly discovered or emerging natural values in and along rivers
  • Press for details of rivers’ wild and scenic eligibility—beyond the generalized categories often used in eligibility reports: recreation, geology, vegetation e.g.—and submit your own
  • Press for other details of agency assessments and evaluations—what data and other information was used in reaching conclusions, w&s eligibility e.g.
  • Responses to conflicts—perceived or asserted—(e.g. potential land or resource development, agricultural activities, water rights and uses, recreation, nearby private land)
  • Local testimonials and insights, providing tangible, qualitative, personal, compelling impressions of the rivers and of their unique surroundings
Bureau of Land Management
The John Day Wild and Scenic River is part of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation Lands.

Recruit influential supporters

The best of messages and information can be boosted if delivered by the right messenger. Well-known and respected local residents, elected officials, celebrities, landowners, business leaders, and people with effective public speaking abilities add credibility and punch to your advocacy efforts.

Focus on rivers specifics

a) Analysis of potential wild and scenic rivers

  • rivers inventory
  • eligibility report (draft, final)
  • suitability determination (draft, final)
  • river recommendations (sometimes)

Administrative protections implemented by federal land-management agencies, arise from a sequence of formal analyses of a particular stream’s “eligibility” and “suitability” for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. (Agencies can also make formal “recommendation” to Congress whether a river should be designated for inclusion.)

See federal guide to wild & scenic study process. 

Some key definitions:

Eligibility – To be eligible for wild & scenic designation, a river must be free-flowing—existing or flowing in natural condition without impoundment, diversion, or other such modifications within the segment of river studies—and have at least one outstandingly remarkable valuee.g. river-related scenery, fish and wildlife, historical features, geology—that is exemplary, rare, unusual, exceptional, or otherwise significant.

Suitability – A river can be found suitable for wild & scenic designation based on comparatively more complex and subjective analysis, considering such factors as uniqueness of river values, potential conflicts and trade-offs with other land and water uses, local interest in protection, land ownership, and availability of other methods for protecting river-related values.

Be strategic in using these decision processes – It is important note that, under current federal interpretations, rivers found not suitable typically lose their eligibility as well. The corresponding potential for losing all federal protection for priority rivers makes careful attention to these decisions essential. It may be appropriate, for example, not to push for a suitability determination if eligibility is providing sufficient interim protection for your river.

b) Other protections for rivers and their corridors

  • river-related plant communities and animal habitats
  • water quality
  • water diversions and impoundments
  • travel and access management along and across rivers

Other measures in a land management plan can affect the health and sustainable future of rivers, and of the public lands along them. Sometimes, agencies will propose these other measures as a substitute for wild & scenic eligibility or suitability. Either way, be sure these other river-related measures are strong and effective.

c) Management of already designated rivers

  • wild & scenic river management plans

Rivers already designated by Congress as components of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System must have individual management plans to fulfill the protections required under that designation.

Often, these river-specific plans are created through a separate planning process. Sometimes, however, individual river plans are created or updated as part of the land management plan; watch for that opportunity as well.

Michael Melford
Wild and Scenic Allagash River, Maine.

Dissecting plan documents

Federal land management plans are long and complex, and can be a bit confusing. They can take four to five years to complete.

American Rivers’ guide to influencing land management plans to secure administrative protections for your priority rivers takes some of the mystery and density out of these documents. It highlights key points and documents in the planning process, and should it help you plan and pace your efforts.

See the guide to federal land planning.

Effects of the plan

The importance of land management plans to protecting rivers and river corridors is reflected both in specific provisions of the plan and in being sure those provisions are fulfilled and enforced. Some highlights include:

  • River valuesThe plan must protect identified river values
  • River-altering projectsFederal managers must temper impacts
  • Legal durability of protectionsAdministrative protections are important
  • Monitoring and enforcementFollow-up to keep plans effective
  • Federal-state-local protectionsIt takes a combination

Specific river values – For stream segments found wild-and-scenic suitable, federal land-management agencies must define and implement interim management plans, prescriptions, and other measures to ensure that a suitable river’s free-flowing condition is maintained and that outstandingly remarkable values identified during eligibility analysis (or updated in the suitability review) are not lost.

River-altering projects – Federal agencies must ensure that proposed projects and land uses do not degrade the values for which a river is suitable for wild & scenic designation. Proposals that could damage or diminish an eligible or suitable river must be scrutinized by the federal land managers involved. They must either reject such proposals or require modifications to them in order to maintain recognized rivers values.

Legal durability – Generally, wild-and-scenic suitability does not itself provide direct legal protection; suitability protections are defined in management plans, administrative manuals, and agency handbooks, not in statute. Plans themselves are generally discretionary and amendable documents. Legal leverage for ensuring that management-plan protections are upheld lies primarily in requirements for evaluation of threatening projects and activities under provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and under the non-impairment provisions of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act—and in your diligent follow-up use of those tools.

Monitoring, pressure, and enforcement – Management plans do matter and can be referenced by river-protection advocates to monitor ongoing stream conditions, to evaluate land managers’ diligence in upholding river values, and to pressure those managers to maintain or even strengthen the protections included. Once river protections are included in a plan, that continuing citizen attention to detail and enforcement is crucial.

Federal-state-local protections – A combination of federal wild-and-scenic suitability (generally, a land-management tool) with specific streamflow protections (via existing federal water rights or state instream-flow water rights, as examples) can form highly effective protection for high-value streams and for their adjacent corridors—even without congressional action. In many instances, this combination of federal, state, and local authorities may suffice as a final form of protection.

This combination of authorities and methods for rivers protection can have several advantages over unilateral federal action. It can bring additional tools to the effort. It also can provide comfort to river-protection skeptics and opponents and to others who prefer more locally based solutions. It can therefore actually help secure a federal finding of wild & scenic suitability, customized to include state and local influences and needs.

Thomas O'Keefe
Wild & Scenic White Salmon River

Sample comments

Review some examples of well-prepared rivers-protection comments submitted as part of previous plan revision processes. Use them to help design your own.

Negotiations

You may find that some flexibility on the question of wild and scenic suitability will serve you well, especially when facing opposition to or skepticism about wild & scenic protections. As in any good negotiation, be careful not to compromise too far or too soon. Consider the possibility of gaining additional and more diverse support for rivers protection through custom variations in the management of suitable rivers.

In some recent federal land management plans in the intermountain west, for example, the management-plan decision about suitability for select streams has been deferred—rather than decided for or against suitability. These deferrals typically rely on two key factors:  1) protection for the river’s free-flowing condition and its outstandingly remarkable values will rely on other existing protections, on continuing river-management partnerships, or on other means; 2) the federal agency retains the option of completing suitability determinations if those alternative methods are removed or fail to provide adequate protection.

An essential advantage of this approach is that, while the suitability determination is in deferral phase, the eligibility status of the river is retained, obliging the federal managing agency to ensure protection for the values that made it eligible.

Partnerships

A finding of wild and scenic suitability can set the stage for creative agreements and partnership, particularly in the protection of healthy streamflows.

Many objections to wild and scenic protection—including suitability, or even eligibility—come from individuals and entities concerned about possible effects on existing or potential development and use of water. Congressional designation of a wild & scenic river carries with it a federal water right that can limit or stop water diversions, impoundments, and streamflow reductions.

Eligibility and suitability do not carry such a federal water right, or really any new authority to protect natural streamflows; federal protective authority is generally limited to protecting the stream corridor and to limiting river-impacting activities that are proposed on federal land or with federal assistance. Arguments that a river should not be found suitable because that would harm water supplies are therefore generally hollow.

Meanwhile, many states, and some other water authorities, do have programs for protecting specified levels of streamflow, usually to degrees and in terms that do not compromise water delivery systems. Combining such state and local measures for the river’s flow (protecting the water) with suitability status (protecting the river corridor) can be a highly effective cooperative approach that gives comfort to the parties involved while secure a natural future for the river.

(Related to both negotiations and partnerships, NOTE that many agency field offices, or sometimes other parties, have in recent years become enamored of convening so-called wild and scenic working groups, negotiations, or collaborations to influence the agency’s suitability determinations. Beware the potential for such separate processes to dilute your ability to advocate outright for rivers’ suitability or to otherwise detract from your advocacy for rivers protection. Such processes often are intended, explicitly or subtly, to develop substitutes for wild and scenic protections, often trapping participants into agreements counter to good rivers protection. Be sure of the rules of engagement, selection of participants, constraints on participation, and overall validity of such processes before deciding whether to join them.)