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West Fork Humptulips River Kayaking, by Tom O'Keefe

West Fork Humptulips River Kayaking, by Thomas O’Keefe

Wild rivers give us clean water, world-class recreation and unmatched opportunities for inspiration and solitude. They bring jobs and economic benefits to local communities and they provide critical habitat for salmon, steelhead, and other fish and wildlife. The Wild & Scenic Rivers Act was passed in 1968 to protect our nation’s last, best free-flowing rivers.

Free flowing means “existing or flowing in a natural condition without impoundment, diversion, straightening, rip-rapping, or other modification of the waterway.”

Wild & Scenic designation, the strongest protection a river can receive, ensures that the free flowing character, water quality and outstanding values of these rivers are protected for generations to come. Many of the Northwest’s most iconic rivers are protected as Wild & Scenic: the Rogue in Oregon, the Salmon in Idaho, and the Skagit in Washington. Other rivers including most of the major river systems of the Olympic Peninsula have been identified as eligible for Wild & Scenic designation by the federal land management agencies.

Wild & Scenic Rivers Overview

The Wild & Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 (Public Law 90-542) in Section 1(b) expresses congressional policy for America’s rivers as follows:

It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their environments, possess outstanding 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.

Skagit River, by Tom O'Keefe

Skagit River, by Thomas O’Keefe

To be eligible for designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a river must be free flowing and contain at least one Outstandingly Remarkable Value (ORV) that is:

  • Scenic
  • Recreational
  • Geological
  • Fish-related
  • Wildlife-related
  • Historic
  • Cultural
  • Botanical
  • Hydrological
  • Paleontological
  • Scientific

To be considered as an outstandingly remarkable value the feature of the river must be unique, rare, or exemplary at a regional or national scale. While the spectrum of resources that may be considered is broad, all values should be directly river related.


Padding on the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River, by Thomas O'Keefe

Padding on the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River, by Thomas O’Keefe

Wild & Scenic Designation:

  • Protects and enhances a river’s “outstandingly remarkable” values that can include wildlife, recreation, fisheries, cultural attributes, geology, scenery, or other regionally significant values
  • Protects existing uses of the river including recreational activities such as fishing and boating
  • Protects a river’s free flowing character and prohibits federally-licensed dams and other harmful water projects
  • Establishes a 1/4-mile corridor on both sides of the river representing the zone of management focus
  • Requires the creation of a cooperative river management plan developed through a public process that addresses resource protection, land development and facilities, public use, and overall management
  • Can often help leverage federal funding for improved recreation access and restoration projects
  • Requires an Act of Congress (legislation)

Each river in the National System is administered with the goal of protecting and enhancing the values that caused it to be designated. Designation neither prohibits development nor gives the federal government control over private property. Recreation, forestry practices, and other uses may continue.

Have more questions?  Click here for the full law details.