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Wild and Scenic Rivers of America

Wild and Scenic Rivers of America

by Tim Palmer

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The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is one of the most important natural areas protection programs ever established at the federal level. It has resulted in the creation of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System -- a rich American legacy that includes many of our finest waterways. This book is the definitive resource on the National Wild and Scenic Rivers


The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is one of the most important natural areas protection programs ever established at the federal level. It has resulted in the creation of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System -- a rich American legacy that includes many of our finest waterways. This book is the definitive resource on the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Topics covered include: the importance of protecting river ecosystems state and local protection systems the history of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System descriptions of each of the major rivers in the system how and why rivers are chosen for inclusion river management continuing threats to rivers what can be done to make the system more effective and more inclusive

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Palmer, a longtime river conservationist, details the history, management, and recreational opportunities of the 145 rivers protected by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. He talks about the need for ecological protection of rivers and how the political system, to date, has responded to that need. He then envisions future legislation and management regarding these rivers. Subsequent chapters detail all the rivers and river systems from Alaska to Florida that currently are under protection by the federal government. Rounded out by an excellent index and an appendix that includes Palmer's resources and a comprehensive list of organizations involved in waterway protection, this book provides invaluable infor mation for those interested in river re creation and resource conservation.-- Me linda Stivers Leach, Precision Editorial Svcs., Wondervu, Col.

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The Wild and Scenic Rivers of America

By Tim Palmer


Copyright © 1993 Tim Palmer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-368-3


The Nation's Rivers


From the arctic splendor of Alaska to the sandy flats of Florida, a collection of exceptional rivers has been protected and spared from biological wreckage. The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System includes many of our finest waterways and a rich American legacy.

Nothing comparable exists anywhere else in the world. Canada has named a small system of "heritage" rivers, and Costa Rica and some other countries have defended a few rivers in parklands, but no other nation has set out to keep a significant system of streams intact for the future.

Lying like short curls of thread thrown onto a map, the protected rivers remain strongholds of the free flow and refuges of the riparian Eden, of the mountain farmer and the rural landowner. The rivers are stretched-out green reserves overflowing with life, potential, and promise.

These rivers are home to trout, salmon, and sturgeon; steelhead, bass, and pike; squawfish, catfish, and carp. The eagle, heron, and kingfisher live here; also the otter, alligator, and beaver. And the rivers offer so much more, including people's favorite places, playgrounds, and living spaces. What an extraordinary system it is!

With the waters and shorelines and their inseparable valleys and canyons, the rivers represent perfection of the natural systems that constitute no less than life on earth. When we save a river, we save a major part of an ecosystem, and we save ourselves as well because of our dependence—physical, economic, and spiritual—on the water and its community of life.

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System ranks among the major efforts of the federal government to protect natural areas, along with the national parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, and forests. In contrast to those, the rivers program offers greater flexibility; it recognizes the coexistence of many uses on both public and private land. But despite its importance, the Wild and Scenic Rivers System remains distinctly smaller and less well known than other programs. Information can readily be unearthed about parks and wilderness, for example, but little has been written about the rivers. This is the new program, the uncharted one, unknown, really, yet fertile with possibilities.

In 1986 I wrote Endangered Rivers and the Conservation Movement as the history of river conservation, with a focus on protection from dams and water projects. The Wild and Scenic Rivers of America complements that book and presents an in-depth examination of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System—the protection alternative to dams, diversions, canals, and leapfrogging land development. This volume consolidates information, thoughts, and analysis that were previously scattered and obscure, confined to the minds of a handful of experts, and that had not been described or probed much in public print until now. In addition, chapter 4 offers the first compendium of the nationally protected rivers.

How are these waterways protected? How was the system started, who stepped forward to initiate action, and what kind of struggles—political, physical, and rhetorical—have influenced the system's growth and lack of it? Which waterways were added, which were left out, and why? Where can the national rivers be seen? How can they be enjoyed? What is wrong with the system? Why the virulent opposition of some people? How are the rivers cared for after designation, and by whom? What dilemmas are faced today, what are the dimensions of the future, and how can protection be extended from the few rivers to the many? What should constitute a "system" of national rivers? What are the alternatives? Which streams should be added so that they remain wild and scenic for generations to come?


Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, and the system has grown in fits and starts from 12 rivers to 212 rivers as of August 1992, a number that includes large forks and branches of rivers but not small tributaries that are also named for protection under the act (see chapter 4 for important clarifications on the number of rivers). Including all named rivers and tributaries, 10,574.1 miles are designated. This book covers all the wild and scenic rivers plus 11 others in similar designations, such as "national rivers," "riverways," and "national recreation areas." Taken together, they form what this book often calls, simply, the "national rivers"—all being important nationally, all receiving federal protection, and in composite paralleling the national park system, though their administration and management are quite different.

These rivers are not just a collection of America's finest waterways, they are also victims of politics. A river of unexceptional value may be protected because political support exists for its protection, while an extraordinary stream may go unguarded because it lacks the votes. It is all a political resource in the end. The rivers system is based on turbulent contests of rhetoric, negotiation, leverage, influence, and plain luck, good and bad.

Having somehow made it over the hurdles of legislative consent, the national rivers shine as a showcase of life and natural wonders. In the Northeast, the Allagash churns darkly through the boggy wilds of Maine. The Obed in Tennessee and the Chattooga in Georgia burst white, green, and rocky from the Appalachians. In the deep south, Florida's Loxahatchee and Mississippi's Black Creek shelter an intricate abundance of life. The Eleven Point of the Ozarks riffles as a watery gem through the gentle lands of the Midwest. Dramatic in glowing light, the Rio Grande cuts through deep desert canyons of the Southwest. California—both abundantly blessed and severely stressed—is represented by the truly exceptional Kern, Merced, Tuolumne, American, and Feather rivers, along with four large river systems in the north, which form the greatest concentration of national rivers anywhere. In the Rockies, the Cache la Poudre in Colorado, the mosaic-bottomed Flathead in Montana, and a handful of Idaho rivers glimmer as they flow from great mountains. The Northwest, a land of rainfall and therefore a land of rivers, has the classic Rogue and a stunning collection of Oregon streams designated in one bold congressional bill. The Skagit and White Salmon flow from snowy Cascade peaks in Washington. In Alaska, where the wildness that once howled across the continent survives more or less intact, 33 national rivers drop from high country toward the sea in astonishing beauty.

A river lover's wish list, streams with wild and scenic protection include the Salmon, our longest river without a dam outside Alaska; the New, second-oldest river on earth; the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone, arguably the wildest river in 49 states; the Selway, offering perhaps the preeminent wilderness river journey outside Alaska; the Klamath, the finest large stream for steelhead in the country; the Kings, whose upper reaches have the greatest undammed vertical drop on the continent; and the American and Delaware, backyard escapes for millions at each end of the country.

The system boasts variety, but it doesn't begin to represent a complete sampler of American rivers, important as that might be. Black waters of the Southeast are largely absent. Rivers of the Midwest, Northeast, and southern Rocky Mountains remain scarce. Few truly large rivers and few urban ones are included. Wild rivers as notable as the Colorado in the Grand Canyon and the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park lack the protection of national river status and suffer as a result.

The national rivers system includes 0.9 percent of the mileage of U.S. streams greater than five miles in length. If total stream mileage in the nation is counted, the national rivers account for only 0.3 percent—about 5 yards per mile. Meanwhile, dams block nearly every major river outside Alaska. More than 60,000 large dams and several hundred thousand smaller ones have been built. Considering also the development, channelization, and pollution that are so widespread, only 2 percent of the stream mileage outside Alaska having outstanding natural qualities remains unaffected by development or other changes. To protect this small percentage as national rivers would mean expanding the system to six times its present size—an enormous task, but one that talented, persistent, politically adept river advocates work toward.

Their work is urgent because the rivers of America face ongoing threats of five kinds, and national river designation can help to cope with some of these pressures. First, new dams are proposed. Although most large water projects fell victim to citizen opposition, fatal environmental reviews, and tight budgets, thousands of hydroelectric dams are on the drawing boards, and escalating oil prices would trigger construction of many. Second, channelization of rivers persists as a threat in some regions, especially the South and Midwest. Diversions from rivers in the West have devastated tens of thousands of miles of waterways and eliminated entire ecosystems. This depletion of water from rivers continues and worsens, though ample evidence along many streams shows that it is possible to have healthy rivers and supply irrigation and people's needs if we use water more efficiently. For municipal water supplies, the threat of diversions is increasing in the East. Third, although many rivers now run cleaner than they did 20 years ago, toxic wastes have worsened; nonpoint pollution from agriculture, logging, and urban storm runoff has scarcely been corrected at all; and advances in the past could be lost by rapid growth in some areas and by neglected funding for water quality. Fourth, land development along rivers—perhaps the most difficult problem—ranks as the foremost concern of citizens working to save streams nationwide. Fifth, poorly managed grazing, farming, logging, and mining ruin habitat and ecological integrity on a massive scale.

People's interest in protection has grown since John Muir initiated the idea at the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park in 1900 and since passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. Interest may accelerate in coming years for several reasons. First, river recreation has grown dramatically, bringing many people to a sense of the rivers' vitality and their role in the local economy. Fishing is one of the five most popular leisure activities in America. Where the occasional paddler used to drift down secluded waterways, canoeists along with rafters and kayakers now number in the hundreds of thousands. Trails and bikeways draw masses of people to riverfronts. Many of the people who walk, camp, watch birds, hunt, and otherwise have fun outdoors, or who simply sit down by the water's edge to relax, in fact depend on rivers and the pathways of greenery made possible by flowing water. A second, related reason for growing interest in river protection is the increased public concern for preservation of wildlife corridors and protection of watersheds for ecological integrity.

Third, the era of big dams has ended owing to exorbitant costs, shrewd opposition, and exhaustion of safe and suitable sites. Instead, people are slowly turning to the natural environment and to nonstructural approaches, such as flood plain management, rather than flood control dams; they are looking to water conservation, recycling, and reappropriation rather than to water-supply dams, and to solar energy rather than hydroelectric dams. At the same time, federal and state agencies have succeeded in reducing some water pollution, especially in urban areas, leading to new usability of and civic pride in the rivers.

Fourth, as the national parks and wilderness systems mature and Congress preserves the most important areas, more people will surely turn to river programs for protection of natural areas. Park and wilderness efforts will certainly continue for generations, but some of the emphasis placed on those efforts in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s may switch to rivers. River protection is a "frontier" in resource preservation and a type of program that doesn't depend on the controversial objectives of land acquisition, tight regulation, and highly specialized use.

Finally, protection programs will grow because rivers lie closer to people and are more central to community integrity and everyday life than perhaps any other feature of the landscape. Rivers are vastly more accessible than national parks, forests, wilderness, or wildlife refuges. More cities, towns, and villages have a river or stream than have mountains or, for that matter, woodlands. A waterway of some kind holds potential importance in virtually every community. That doesn't mean that national river designation will be appropriate for all streams—far from it—but it does mean that rivers could benefit from people's everyday concern for their local environment and neighborhood. Ironically, the universal appeal, presence, and use of rivers also make them difficult to protect.

Designation as a national wild and scenic river is the ultimate protection for a river, the clearest statement under law that we, as a people, have decided that this river should remain with its qualities intact. Enacted by Congress or by the secretary of the interior if requested by a governor, national river status does one thing for certain: it prohibits dams and other damaging water projects as decisively as a political system can.


The movement to protect rivers describes a grab bag of local efforts to save local rivers. All river politics is local politics. But a national movement also exists, bolstered by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and represented by the organization American Rivers, which since 1973 has spoken for river protection nationwide.

National support with broad backing and coalitions of groups with many concerns is essential for a truly national system of rivers to evolve and for the river protection movement to exceed the gains of the past. For this to happen, the rivers must have a greater identity as a group. Even now, a quarter century after passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, most Americans do not know of the system's existence. Without broad support in and out of government, a protection program will go nowhere. People's understanding must be accurate, based on facts, science, and history rather than on myth, rumor, and fear. Also, professionals involved with rivers can learn from history and from the accumulating body of experience based on rivers other than their own.

Finally, a celebration of the national rivers is in order. With a sense of pride, heritage, and accomplishment, people can look to these waterways as remarkable reminders of an idealized America that once was, and which still exists, though in fewer and fewer places. People can take pleasure in the rich tapestry of wild and scenic rivers that remain.


The Legacy of Protection


The Wild and Scenic Rivers System appeared on a stage where untempered and frenetic development was taking place almost everywhere. Americans saw the Mississippi River as one string of dams and then nonstop levees, the Ohio River as back-to-back impoundments for all its 981 miles, the Tennessee River in continuous reservoirs built by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Missouri River flooded for 250 miles at a time. In the Colorado River, dams blocked sublime canyons, and not a drop reached the sea anymore. The world's finest runs of salmon in the Columbia were reduced to a token few, and those that remain are either listed or destined for status as endangered species. Plugged in hundreds of places, the California rivers yielded water and power to fuel the permanent boom of agriculture and urban sprawl but fisheries, wild canyons, and wetlands were destroyed.

The developers making these decisions rarely concerned themselves with fish, wildlife, residents living along the rivers, recreation, or other uses of the free-flowing waters. People who cared accepted the losses as the price of progress or took comfort that other rivers remained. For a time, it seemed to be a large country.

Where dam-building agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers had not yet built dams, they proposed them: on the Colorado in the Grand Canyon, the Hudson in Adirondack Park, the Allagash and Saint John in Maine, the Delaware in Pennsylvania, the Potomac in Virginia, the Flint in Georgia, the Savannah in South Carolina, the Salmon in Idaho, the Klamath in California, the Illinois in Oregon, and on and on.

From John Muir's time at the turn of the century until the mid 1950s, conservationists directed protection at a few select rivers. Parklands motivated people to stop dams, much as they had attempted to do in 1910 at Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite, and as they had succeeded in doing in the 1940s at the Flathead River in Glacier National Park and in Kings Canyon. The Echo Park Dam controversy in 1955 launched a new era of nationwide attention, when coalitions of groups fought plans to dam the Green and Yampa rivers in Dinosaur National Monument. But saving a river because it was a river was not yet an accepted goal, so the Bureau of Reclamation dammed Glen Canyon of the Colorado River—the alternative to Echo Park—with little opposition.


Excerpted from The Wild and Scenic Rivers of America by Tim Palmer. Copyright © 1993 Tim Palmer. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Tim Palmer is the author of more than twelve books about rivers and the American land. Among the awards he has received for his writing and conservation work are the National Outdoor Book Award, the Director's Award from the National Park Service, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the organization American Rivers. Also an accomplished photographer, he frequently speaks and gives slide shows to public audiences and college classes nationwide.

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