National Wild and Scenic Rivers System

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Logo of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act into law.

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System was created by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (Public Law 90-542[1]), enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1968 to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.

The Act is notable for safeguarding the special character of these rivers, while also recognizing the potential for their appropriate use and development. It encourages river management that crosses political boundaries and promotes public participation in developing goals for river protection.

"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 dams 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 vital national conservation purposes." (Wild & Scenic Rivers Act)[2]

The Act established the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Rivers may be designated by Congress or, if certain requirements are met, the Secretary of the Interior. Each river is administered by either a federal or state agency. Designated segments need not include the entire river and may include tributaries. For federally administered rivers, the designated boundaries generally average one-quarter mile on either bank in the lower 48 states and one-half mile on rivers outside national parks in Alaska in order to protect river-related values.

As of August 2018, the National System protects over 12,700 miles of 209 rivers in 40 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico; this is less than one-quarter of one percent of the nation's rivers. By comparison, more than 75,000 large dams across the country have modified at least 600,000 miles, or about 17%, of American rivers.


The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was an outgrowth of the recommendations of a Presidential commission, the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC). Among other things, the commission recommended that the nation protect wild rivers and scenic rivers from development that would substantially change their wild or scenic nature. The act was sponsored by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on October 2, 1968. A river or river section may be designated by the U.S. Congress or the Secretary of the Interior. In 1968, as part of the original act, eight rivers were designated as National Wild and Scenic Rivers (Clearwater, Eleven Point, Feather, Rio Grande, Rogue, St. Croix, Salmon, and Wolf).[3] As of July 2011, 203 rivers, totaling 12,598 miles of river in 38 states and Puerto Rico, have wild and scenic status.[2] By comparison, more than 75,000 large dams across the country have modified at least 600,000 miles, or about 17%, of American rivers.

The Taunton River in Massachusetts is a Wild & Scenic River.

Selected rivers in the United States are preserved for possessing outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values. Rivers (or sections of rivers) so designated are preserved in their free-flowing condition and are not dammed or otherwise impeded. National wild and scenic designation essentially vetoes the licensing of new hydropower projects on or directly affecting the river. It also provides very strong protection against bank and channel alterations that adversely affect river values, protects riverfront public lands from oil, gas and mineral development, and creates a federal reserved water right to protect flow-dependent values.


Designation as a wild and scenic river is not the same as a national park designation, and generally does not confer the same level of protection as a Wilderness Area designation. However, wild and scenic designation protects the free-flowing nature of rivers in non-federal areas, something the Wilderness Act and other federal designations cannot do. Designation does not alter property rights.

Federally administered National Wild and Scenic rivers are managed by one or more of the four principal land-managing agencies of the federal government. Of the 156 National Wild and Scenic Rivers, the most are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, followed by the National Park Service; fifteen of those managed by the NPS are official units, while others are part of other parks. Thirty-eight are managed under the Bureau of Land Management's National Conservation Lands (originally called the National Landscape Conservation System) while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages several rivers in Alaska.

State-managed wild and scenic rivers are subject to the same protections as federally administered rivers. These state rivers are added to the National System by the Secretary of the Interior following an application by the governor of the state the river flows through.

Wild and scenic rivers are assigned one or more classifications: wild, scenic, or recreational. These classifications are based on the developmental character of the river on the date of designation. Wild rivers are the most remote and undeveloped while recreational rivers often have many access points, roads, railroads, and bridges. A river's classification is not related to the value(s) that made it worthy of designation and that must be protected and enhanced by the river manager. For instance, recreation may not be an outstanding value on a river with a recreational classification nor scenery on a river classified as scenic. Notably, wild and scenic rivers receive the same standard of protection regardless of classification.

50th Anniversary of Wild and Scenic Rivers Act[edit]

In 2018, America continues to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act[4].

On August 2nd 2018, 20 miles of East Rosebud Creek in Montana were designated as a Wild and Scenic, the first Wild and Scenic designation in Montana in over 40 years[5].

Proposed additions[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. P. L. 90-542; U.S.C. 1271 et seq. 2 October 1968. Web. 8 August 2018.
  2. ^ a b "About the WSR Act". National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Retrieved 21 October 2014. 
  3. ^ "Wild & Scenic River Act Amendments". National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. National Wild and Scenic Rivers. Retrieved January 9, 2016. 
  4. ^ "Celebrating 50 Years - Wild & Scenic Rivers System". Retrieved 30 August 2018. 
  5. ^ Fiebig, Mike (2 August 2018). "Montana Stream Becomes First Wild and Scenic River Protected in 50th Anniversary Year". American Rivers. Retrieved 30 August 2018. 
  6. ^ "H.R. 412 – Summary". United States Congress. Retrieved 23 June 2014. 

External links[edit]