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Protecting Washington’s Wild Rivers

Posted on Aug 1, 2007 in Conservation Voices, WA Wild Blog

By Tom O’Keefe, River EcologistTom O'Keefe

As someone who has explored hundreds of river miles across the country and around the world, I can confidently say that we have some of the most spectacular river resources of any place in the world.

While the rivers and cascades that define the cultural and natural heritage of our region are a spectacular resource they also have industrial development.

For decades our region witnessed the construction of dams that provided societal benefits but at a tremendous cost to the natural resources that were important to us.  The passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968 marked formal recognition of the fact that we had an urgent need to protect free-flowing rivers for future generations.

Our rivers are a defining feature of our region’s cultural and natural legacy.

As we approach the 40th Anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, it is appropriate to reflect on the progress we’ve made and the opportunities that remain. Here in Washington state we have 3 Wild and Scenic Rivers — the Skagit River and its major tributaries, White Salmon River, and Klickitat River.  Today the sections of these rivers that are protected remain free-flowing and have management plans that guide stewardship of the resource.

While we celebrate those rivers that have been protected many opportunities remain. Formal agency studies of rivers in Washington state have determined that dozens are suitable for Wild and Scenic designation pending action by Congress. Rivers in the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie drainage are among the most outstanding examples of wild rivers in our midst.  One in particular, the Pratt River, is the subject of a renewed interest in designating wild and scenic rivers in our state. The Pratt is a rare example of a river with five outstanding values of regional and national significance — geologic resources that illustrate the glacial legacy of our region, recreational opportunities for hiker and paddlers desiring rare opportunities for solitude and exploration close to downtown Seattle, native trout populations that flourish, ecological resources that illustrate natural river processes, and high quality low-elevation wildlife habitat.

Our rivers are a defining feature of our region’s cultural and natural legacy. As we work on major efforts to restore whole river systems through the removal of outdated dams like those on the Elwha and White Salmon, we also need to protect those rivers that remain as outstanding examples of free-flowing rivers. Our children will be glad we did.

Thomas O’Keefe is a river ecologist and currently serves as the Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director for American Whitewater, a national river conservation organization founded in 1954 to protect the wilderness character of river through conservation of water, forests, parks, wildlife, and related resources.