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Wild River

Wild river

By the mid-1960s, many rivers in the United States had been dammed or otherwise manipulated for flood control, recreation , and other water development projects. There was a growing concern that rivers in their natural state would soon disappear. By 1988, for example, roughly 17% (600,000 mi [965,400 km]) of all the previously free-running rivers in the United States had been trapped behind 60,000 dams .

In 1968, Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act , establishing a program to study and protect outstanding, free-flowing rivers. Federal land management agencies such as the Forest Service and the National Park Service (NPS) were directed to identify rivers on their lands for potential inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. In 1982, the NPS published the National Rivers Inventory (NRI), a list of 1,524 river segments eligible under the act, though budgetary constraints prevented them from including all eligible rivers.

Eligible river segments must be undammed and have at least one outstanding resourcea wildlife habitat , or other recreational, scenic, historic, or geological feature. Rivers can be added to the national system through an act of Congress or by order of the U.S. Department of the Interior upon official request from an individual state. Congress intended all types of free-flowing rivers to be includedremote rivers as well as those that flow through urban areasprovided they meet the established criteria. Both designated rivers and rivers under study for inclusion in the system receive numerous protections. The act prohibits the building of hydroelectric or other water development projects and limits mineral extraction in a designated river corridor.

The act also mandates the development of a land management plan, covering an average of 320 acres (129 ha) per river mile (1.6 km) and roughly 0.25 mi (0.4 km) on either side of the river, which must include measures to conserve the riverside land and resources. If the land is federally owned, the responsible agency is required to specify allowable activities on the land, depending on whether the river is classified as wild, scenic, or recreational. If it is privately owned, federal and state agencies will coordinate with local governments and landowners to specify appropriate land uses within the corridor using zoning and other ordinances.

Identifying a potential wild and scenic river often stirs controversy within local communities, usually among riparian landowners concerned that such a designation will curtail the use of their property. There is no federal power to zone private land, and although the act allows federal agencies to purchase land in a designated corridor, there are strict limitations. Generally, these agencies prefer to assist state, local, and private interests in developing a cooperative plan to conserve the river's resources.

Aware of the importance of riverways for local economic development, and concerned about the issue of property rights, Congress made the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act flexible. Riparian landowners are not forced to move from their land, and designation does not affect existing land uses along the river, such as farming, mining, and logging . Designation can lead to some restrictions on new development, but most development will be allowed as long as it occurs in a manner that does not adversely affect the character of the river. These questions are addressed on a site-specific basis in the management plan, which is developed by all affected and interested parties, including landowners.

As of 2002, 156 rivers are designated, for a total 10,955 mi (17,630 km). Some of the segments included are the American and Klamath rivers in California, the Rio Grande in Texas, the upper and middle Delaware in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and the Bluestone in West Virginia.

See also Ecotourism; Federal Land Policy and Management Act; Land-use control; Riparian land; Riparian rights

[Cathryn McCue ]



Coyle, K. J. The American Rivers Guide to Wild and Scenic River Designation: A Primer on National River Conservation. Washington, DC: American Rivers, 1988.

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