How a federal land management plan is made and how you can influence it

Quick reference

Before the plan revision begins

  • Gather your facts early, know your river
  • Gather your supporters—the more diverse and credible the better
  • Know your federal agency’s plan revision calendar

* Submit detailed comments and recommendations early, including during “pre-assessment” planning phases

During the plan revision process

  1. Attend advance public meetings and open houses; introduce yourself and your resources; get acquainted with key agency staff – early in the process, sometimes before formal plan revision begins (as in forest plan “pre-assessment” phase)
  2.  Submit scoping/assessment comments – usually first stage in the revision process
  3. Comment on draft w&s eligibility report – 2-3 months after scoping
  4. Comment on range of plan alternatives/FS proposed action; be sure protection for your river is included in at least one alternative – 4-6 months after scoping
  5. Review final w&s eligibility report; highlight inadequacies (rivers missing, inaccurate assessment, need for details about w&s qualifications, etc.) – 2-4 months after draft report
  6. Comment on draft w&s suitability analysis – usually published as an appendix to the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) accompanying the draft plan
  7. Negotiate suitability decisions affecting select rivers; consider options other than suitable and not-suitable, in order to gain broader support for strong river protections (including continuing eligibility status)
  8. Comment on draft management plan and accompanying draft EIS – 12 months or longer after scoping
  9. Protest/object proposed plan if essential river protections, including w&s missing suitability findings – 6-12 months after draft plan
  10. Contact your governor to highlight your concerns during governor’s consistency review of the proposed plan – for BLM plans, review begins with release of proposed plan
  11. Review final plan and final EIS – 6-12 months after proposed final plan

After plan is completed

  • Monitor implementation of the plan; be sure that the plan proves adequate for protecting key rivers and that river protections are properly applied
Darby Creek
Darby Creek

Federal land management plans and their revisions

Each federal land management unit (national forest, park, refuge, BLM land, etc.) is required to periodically update or revise its overarching management plan—the document that guides all its action and decisions—every fifteen years or so.

It is in these plan revisions that wild and scenic river assessments are typically undertaken, both for potential wild & scenic rivers and for already designated rivers. That is your cue for action in behalf of strong rivers protection.

Details of the management plan revision process vary somewhat, agency to agency (in terminology, study stages, and timing), but they all follow a basic sequence (typically extending three to five years):

  • Initial outreach for public input, and announcement that the plan revision has begun (often called “scoping”  or “pre-assessment” and including public comment opportunities)
  • Existing situation analysis of details on the ground, assessment of resources for potential development and/or protection (another opportunity to submit information and comments)
  • Draft plan, with accompanying draft environmental analysis (EIS) of comparative plan alternatives (followed by a public comment period)
  • Proposed final plan, with opportunity for public response (variously protests, comments, requests for adjustments, local and state officials’ review)
  • Final plan and “record of decision”

Rivers-specific opportunities within the plan-revision process also are fairly standard:

  • Agency’s inventory or list of potential wild and scenic rivers (usually during initial outreach/scoping)
  • Wild and scenic eligibility report (usually during analysis of existing situation, often first in draft form with comment period, followed by final)
  • Wild and scenic draft suitability determination (usually published as part of the draft plan (appendix to the draft EIS), for public comment)
  • Wild and scenic final suitability determination (published as part of the proposed plan and final plan), often—but not always—accompanied by recommendations for or against congressional designation of select suitable rivers, as well as specific instructions for management of suitable rivers and their corridors

The BLM nearly always completes the suitability analysis as part of its management plan revisions; the Forest Service is more variable, forest to forest, and often completes only the eligibility report during its plan revision process. Since either report may provide the only long-term foundation for management and protection of key rivers, it is important to press for the strongest and most completes version of each.

Cheoah River in Nanthahala National Forest, NC
Cheoah River in Nanthahala National Forest, NC

Bureau of Land Management

Originally the caretaker of orphan lands not specifically included in special designations (national forest, national park, wildlife refuge, etc.), the BLM now is a professional land management organization, with responsibility for the ecological health of the public lands in its jurisdiction. See guide to BLM planning >>

NOTE that the BLM approved, in late 2016, a new rule guiding its land management plans revision process. On March 7, 2017 the U.S. Congress rejected that rule.

All BLM planning is now again guided by the 1983 BLM planning rule (which was applicable to most plan revision processes that had already begun). The following information reflects the provisions of that earlier rule.

U.S. Forest Service

The forest service manages all federal lands included in national forests and grasslands. It is required to ensure that these lands provide a sustainable supply of timber, forage, and water, while ensuring their enduring ecological health. See guide to Forest Service planning >>

NOTE that the U.S. Forest Service published in 2012 its new and long anticipated rule on forest planning and plan revisions. The agency has portrayed this rule as a means to simplify and speed up forest planning.

Rivers-specific:  In response to the new rule, the USFS has also updated its Forest Service Handbook section regarding wild and scenic rivers – Section 1909.12, Chapter 80.

A few forest plan revisions already started under the old (1982) planning rule might continue under that rule, and attention to which rule is used for your local plan revision is important. The majority of current revisions, and all upcoming revisions, use the new rule, which is depicted in the following outline.

Tony Webster
White River in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, WA

Opportunities for your input and influence (both agencies)

Nearly every major stage of the planning process affords some form of public input, some in the form of official comment periods, others more informal.

Formal comments

  1. Scoping comment period—Press the agency to include a complete list of potential wild & scenic rivers and to undertake a robust analysis of their values and the importance of protecting those values; provide a comprehensive list of rivers that should evaluated (and protected).
  • Preliminary wild & scenic rivers eligibility list—Whether the agency formally offers opportunity to review or to comment on its list of potential rivers, ask to review that list; recommend additional rivers, if necessary.
  • Draft w&s eligibility report—The agency will offer a formal comment opportunity once is has published its draft eligibility report; press for inclusion (and analysis) of additional rivers, if necessary; provide additional information, if available, about specific values that individual rivers possess (on your list or on theirs).
  • Final w&s eligibility report—If the final report is, in your judgment, incomplete or contains inaccuracies, highlight those to the agency right away; prepare to continue pressing those oversights during the next review phase.
  • Draft plan (and draft EIS, with draft suitability report) comment period—Provide specific comments, technical information, protection recommendations for all high-value rivers on which you have experience and views; comment on whether the range of protection alternatives for rivers is sufficient (including one with expansion of the eligibility list, if necessary); recommend additional protections; recommend specific changes in one or more alternatives (particularly the environmental protection alternative and the agency-preferred alternative).
    • draft w&s suitability analysis (part of  draft plan/draft EIS)—Provide strong comments of support for rivers  the draft analysis proposes for wild and scenic suitability; advocate findings of suitability for additional rivers, if necessary; provide additional technical information—and correct inadequate agency information—about the values of select rivers.
  • Proposed-plan protest or objection period—Submit formal protest of priority shortcomings in the proposed plan’s provisions for rivers—in general and for select individual streams; look especially for rivers that were found eligible but that do not have adequate protection for the outstandingly remarkable values identified for them.

Optional or informal comments

  • Pre-planning—Get acquainted with agency planning staff; let them know your interest and expertise; highlight wild and scenic rivers protection as your interest.
  • Planning criteria preparation—The agency will sometimes offer a public comment period, public meetings, or both; in any case, provide your recommendations on criteria that should be used to identify key high-value rivers for review; recommend specific rivers for review.
  • Inventory and data collection/assessment—Ask to review the agency’s collection of data; provide additional information, if available and if necessary, to showcase key high-value rivers.
  • Analysis of management situation—The agency will sometimes offer a public comment opportunity, public meetings, or both; in any case, ask to review the agency’s analysis; provide additional analysis, if available and if necessary.
  • Range of alternatives—The agency will sometimes offer a public comment opportunity, public meetings, or both; in any case, review the proposed range of alternatives, an insist that at least one alternative provide wild and scenic suitability protection for all high-value rivers you are championing.
  • Effects of each alternative—Ask to review the agency’s description of effects; provide additional information and perspectives, if available and if necessary.
  • Implement, monitor, evaluate—Once the final plan is approved, your continued vigilance is important; your field knowledge of key rivers, and your observations on the agency’s management actions affecting those rivers, can keep the agency accountable and can provide opportunity to press for adjustments and improvements to the plan or to its implementation.
  • Maintain, amend, revise—Whether on your own initiative or in response to formal agency initiatives to adjust the management of key rivers, actively participate to be sure that rivers protection is maintained or improved.
Missouri River, MT
Missouri River, MT

Key contacts and relationships (both agencies)

All aspects of your participation in federal land management planning will be enhanced by positive relationships with key government staff (and sometimes contractors). Get to know them early, and stay in touch frequently through the planning process. Examples of people you will need to know, and influence, include:

  • BLM field office manager, forest supervisor
  • Planning coordinator and planning team members
  • Wild and scenic rivers coordinator (sometimes combined with wilderness)
  • Aquatics/watershed specialists
  • Recreation specialist
  • State office, forest regional wild and scenic coordinator/specialist

Wild and scenic sections (both agencies)

Where to look in management plans and in plan revision  process (location, order, and titles may vary).

Potential wild and scenic river analyses

  • Potential rivers list
  • Eligibility report
  • Suitability determination
  • Recommendation

Management of already designated rivers

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, individual river plans are created, or updated, as part of the overall land management plan; watch for that opportunity as well.

Bureau of Land Management
The John Day Wild and Scenic River is part of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation Lands.

Terminology, analysis, and decisions


Once the land-managing agency (typically in the course of the management plan revision) finds a river eligible for wild and scenic protection, the agency undertakes several interim administrative measures intended a) to protect the values for which a river was determined eligible and b) to preserve the integrity of the preliminary w&s classification (wild, scenic, or recreational), including:

  • Maintain a river corridor boundary of at least ¼ mile from the ordinary high-water mark on both sides of the river;
  • Seek protection of river values on adjacent private land using voluntary agreements and partnerships (no regulatory authority on private land);
  • Maintain river’s free-flowing condition, using available authorities;
  • Retain federal lands within the river corridor;
  • Protect outstandingly remarkable values (included in eligibility determination) using available authorities (no new wild & scenic-specific authority).

It is important to NOTE that w&s scenic eligibility may provide the only long-term basis for management and protection for key rivers. It is therefore essential, and timely, to press for the strongest and most complete version.

Suitability—Once the land-managing agency (often, but not always, in the course of a management plan revision) declares a river suitable for addition to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, the agency continues the protective measures applied to an eligible river. These measures are supplemented by conferring with other federal agencies that might consider projects that could impact the river’s values, seeking modifications that will reduce those impacts.

Deferral of suitability decision—Historically at this stage, the agency has determined that particular rivers are either suitable or non-suitable. In recent years, some management plan processes have included a deferral of the suitability decision.

Under that approach, consideration of suitability is postponed while other factors are allowed to play out—e.g. management plan protections, land acquisitions, streamflow protections, community management/protection plans. Sometimes, the agency simply postpones the suitability analysis until compelled to undertake it—e.g. new dynamics or proposed activities pose threats to river flow and/or values, interest or pressure from communities, advocates, or public officials.

It is important to NOTE that, under current directives or tradition in both agencies, a river found non-suitable loses its eligibility status, and the agency correspondingly loses its obligation to protect the streamflow, river values, and river-corridor values that prompted the eligibility finding; that is, wild and scenic values may be lost to development, damage, or other impacts.

Conversely, a finding of wild & scenic suitability may provide the only long-term basis for management and protection for key rivers. It is therefore essential, and timely, to press for the strongest and most complete version.

As a result, the suitability decision becomes a priority point of focus for river-protection advocates. Securing either a determination that the river is suitable or a deferral of the suitability decision (thus preserving the eligibility status) is critical to retaining continued administrative protection for key river values.

Recommendation—The determination of suitability provides the basis for the agency’s decision to recommend, to the President and to Congress, wild and scenic designation (or non-designation) of particular streams, if undertaken.

Kent Vertrees
The wild Yampa River, CO.

Effectiveness of the plan

In general, the extent, effectiveness, and enforceability of wild-and-scenic protections using administrative measures (in the land management plan) are less specific, and may be less reliable, than those afforded a river that is actually designated (typically by Act of Congress) as a component of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. This is due to two basic factors:

  • Management plans rely heavily on standards, guidelines, target conditions, and monitoring standards, all of which are somewhat subjective and subject to in-the-field interpretation; and
  • Management plans, and select portions of them (e.g. eligibility or suitability standing), can be amended or revised administratively, albeit requiring a review and public comment sequence comparable to a full plan revision.

Nevertheless, the plan—and its interim management protections for potential wild and scenic rivers—is the enabling and guiding document for all management agency decisions and actions. Decisions and actions that do not comply with the plan—do not ensure protection for a river’s identified free-flowing condition and outstandingly remarkable values, for example—can be challenged, both administratively and in court. The agency is therefore motivated to maintain proper protections. Securing administrative protections (through the management plan or otherwise) is worth the effort, and it warrants continuing monitoring and accountability during the life of the plan.