The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968

1) Why did Congress pass the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act?

Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act at the height of the modern dam-building era in order to ensure that the construction of new dams on rivers is balanced with the protection of select free-flowing rivers that possess nationally significant values. This landmark law is the highest form of protection for rivers in the U.S. In the words of Congress:

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. – Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, 1968

2) How does the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protect rivers?

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protects rivers in five major ways:

It bans the construction of new federally-licensed dams and other harmful water development projects;

It ensures water quality is maintained and, where possible, enhanced;

It creates a federally-reserved water right for the minimum amount of water necessary to maintain a river’s social and ecological values;

It prohibits any activities that would harm a river’s values;

It requires the development of a Comprehensive River Management Plan (CRMP) to guide management along designated rivers for a period of 10-20 years.

3) How many rivers are in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System?

As of April 2012, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System protects 203 river segments in 39 states comprising 12,598 river miles. That translates to approximately 0.4% of the river miles in the United States. By comparison, more than 75,000 large dams have modified at least 600,000 miles of rivers across the country, or approximately 17% of river miles in the United States.

4) How does Montana rank in terms of Wild and Scenic rivers?

Montana currently ranks 7th in the nation with a total of 368 Wild and Scenic river miles on four river segments - the Upper Missouri River and three forks of the Flathead River. This translates to about 0.2% of the river miles in Montana. The top six states in terms of Wild and Scenic river mileage are Alaska (3,210 miles), California (1,971 miles), Oregon (1,839 miles), Idaho (890 miles), Michigan (625 miles), and Wyoming (408 miles). Montana hasn’t had a new Wild and Scenic river designated since 1976.

5) How are rivers added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System?

Typically, a river becomes Wild and Scenic first by being categorized as “eligible” for designation by the appropriate land management agency (Forest Service, BLM, etc.), although Congress has designated rivers that were not previously found eligible for protection. Any section of river that is free-flowing and possesses one or more “outstandingly remarkable values” (ORVs) can be found eligible for Wild and Scenic protection. Rivers can be added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in one of two ways. The most common way is for Congress to pass Wild and Scenic legislation to be signed into law by the President. The less traditional way is for the Governor of a state to petition the Secretary of the Interior to add a river to the system.

6) Are there different classifications under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that reflect the condition of a river at the time it is designated?

Designated rivers are classified in one of three categories depending upon the extent of development and accessibility along each section:

Wild rivers are free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive, and waters unpolluted.

Scenic rivers are free of impoundments with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive, and shorelines largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads. These segments are more developed than “wild” rivers and less developed than “recreational” rivers.

Recreational rivers are readily accessible by road or railroad, may have some development along their shoreline, and may have undergone some impoundment or diversion in the past.

7) How wide are Wild and Scenic river corridors?

Wild and Scenic corridor boundaries are established to protect the free-flowing condition, water quality, and social and environmental values for which the river was designated. Generally, the corridor width cannot exceed an average of 320 acres per mile, which, if applied uniformly along the entire designated segment, is a quarter of a mile (1,320 feet) on each side of the river. Boundaries may be wider or narrower, but are not to exceed the 320 acre average per mile without approval by Congress. Measurement is made from the ordinary high water mark, exclusive of islands.

8) How does Wild and Scenic designation change the way that rivers are managed?

Wild and Scenic designation can be thought of as an insurance policy that protects rivers from potential future changes – changes that would harm their free-flowing nature and environmental or social values. Once a river has been deemed “eligible” for Wild and Scenic designation by the relevant land management agency, the agency typically adds an amendment to its management plan prescribing that it be managed as if it was already designated Wild and Scenic. So far, approximately 1,200 river miles across western Montana have been found eligible for Wild and Scenic designation and are currently managed to preserve these values.

9) What threats are alleviated through Wild and Scenic rivers designations?

Wild and Scenic designation ensures that the many forms of development that are occurring across the country do not compromise a river’s free-flowing character, water quality and quantity, or social and ecological values. First and foremost, Wild and Scenic designation ensures that no new federally-licensed dams or other harmful water development projects (e.g. the inter-basin transfers that are common in the Colorado River watershed) are constructed on designated rivers. Other activities that may be restricted by Wild and Scenic designation if they cannot be undertaken without harming a river’s free-flowing condition, water quality or remarkable values: mining, oil and gas drilling, commercial timber harvest, and major highway and bridge construction projects.

10) Is livestock grazing allowed in Wild and Scenic river corridors?

Generally, livestock grazing and related infrastructure are not affected by Wild and Scenic designation, although agricultural practices should be similar in nature and intensity to those present in the area at the time of designation. Although it is rare, the managing agency may modify grazing practices on public lands if they are degrading water quality or harming the “outstandingly remarkable values” for which a river was designated.

11) Are motorized vehicles allowed in Wild and Scenic river corridors?

Unlike the Wilderness Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act does not prohibit the use of motorized vehicles on land or on water within designated corridors. In fact, several of the most well known Wild and Scenic rivers in the country allow jet boating, including sections of the Rogue, Snake, and Salmon rivers. Motorized use within designated river corridors may be restricted through the river management planning process, however it is typically allowed to continue if it was occurring prior to designation.

12) Does the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act restrict development on private lands within designated river corridors?

No. Under the Act, the federal government has no authority to regulate or zone private lands. Land use controls on private lands are solely a matter of state and local zoning. Although the Act includes provisions encouraging the protection of river values through state and local land use planning, there are no binding provisions on local governments. In the absence of state or local river protection provisions, the federal government may seek to protect values by providing technical assistance, entering into agreements with landowners and/or through the purchase of easements, exchanges, or acquisition of private lands.

13) How does Wild and Scenic designation affect public access to rivers for fishing, hunting, camping, and other forms of recreation?

Wild and Scenic designation neither bars the public from accessing public lands within designated river corridors nor opens private lands to public access within designated river corridors. Fishing and hunting are regulated under state laws. Where hunting and fishing were allowed prior to designation, they may continue. The river-administering agency may, however, establish no hunting zones for public safety or for other reasons in consultation with the fish and wildlife agencies of the state(s). An example of such a place is along designated reaches located within national parks where no hunting is currently allowed. In general, WSR designation does not restrict boating access at all.

14) How does Wild and Scenic designation affect water rights?

Wild and Scenic designation has no effect on existing valid water rights or interstate water compacts. In prior appropriation states such as Montana, any new Wild and Scenic water rights claimed under state law would have a priority date as of the river’s date of designation by Congress and would be considered junior to existing water rights.

15) What added benefits do Wild and Scenic designations give rivers within protected areas such as national parks and wilderness areas?

In many cases, there may be no practical effect, though designation is still very important to guarantee protection of socially and environmentally important rivers over the long term. Laws like the Wilderness Act do allow certain activities in designated Wilderness that may be incompatible with a Wild and Scenic river designations. For instance, the President may authorize construction of dams, water resource and energy projects in Wilderness areas, but not in Wild and Scenic river corridors. Likewise, the National Park Service may allow major road and bridge construction projects in national parks, but those projects would not be allowed along a Wild and Scenic river if they adversely affected its free-flowing character or the “outstandingly remarkable values” listed during designation.  

To learn more about the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, please visit the recently updated website: