Natural Resource Defense Council - Oregon Rivers: Even More Wild and Scenic

Giulia C.S. Good Stefani

Oregon is gorgeous and people travel to the state from across the country to whitewater raft, canoe, fish, kayak, and camp along its many rivers and streams. But surprisingly few of the state’s roughly 110,000 river miles are protected as “Wild and Scenic.” That can change!

In the largest single effort to protect rivers in U.S. history, Senator Ron Wyden and Senator Jeff Merkley have introduced the River Democracy Act—a bill that adds nearly 4,700 miles of rivers and streams in Oregon to the national Wild and Scenic Rivers system.

The legislation comes on the heels of President Biden’s pledge to put the United States on the path of protecting at least 30 percent of its land and 30 percent of its ocean areas by 2030 (30×30), and it is in line with the growing realization that now is the moment to secure the natural life support systems we depend on for clean water, food, and quality of life.

To put the promise to protect 4,700 river miles in perspective, my family whitewater rafted a section of Oregon’s Deschutes River this summer. In three days, we made it about 45 miles. At that rate, it would take nearly a year to float 4,700 miles! Indeed, the River Democracy Act’s list of Oregon rivers and streams to be protected is an astonishing 257 pages long. (Full text here.)

The Act is bold not only in scope, but also for how Senator Wyden arrived at the list of rivers and streams to be protected. Thousands of Oregonians from across the state submitted more than 15,000 nominations to his staff. That formed the basis for the bill. And the voices in support of the River Democracy Act reflect the state’s great diversity—from the Chairman of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians to the Executive Director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association to the President of the Deschutes Brewery.

The legislation realizes the urgent need to protect Oregon’s river water from climate change induced wildfires and could prove a model for other western states. This past summer, hot temperatures, severe drought, and extreme winds fueled the most destructive wildfires in Oregon history. When a fire burns over rivers and streams, it can have immediate and long-lasting impacts on water quality. The Act helps protect Oregon rivers by requiring federal land managers to assess wildfire risks, reduce risks (including by considering prescribed fires), and develop fire management plans that increase resiliency of the river and adjacent communities.

Oregon depends on its rivers and streams for drinking water, irrigation, and wildlife habitat. A more fire resilient river system benefits rural towns with limited water resources, and it helps protected endangered species like salmon that are highly sensitive to water temperature, turbidity, and the loss of streamside habitat.

The Act makes strides to recognize the critical importance of rivers and the plants, berries, and roots that grow nearby to indigenous peoples as well. Before European settlers arrived, Oregon’s forests and waterways had been maintained for millennia by its first people. There were an estimated 60 tribes that spoke at least 18 languages in the state. Today Oregon is still home to roughly 50,000 Native Americans.

The Act encourages federal land managers to develop river management plans in collaboration with Native American tribes, aiming to afford tribes a more meaningful voice in river and resource management. The Act also requires river management plans in Oregon to “assess culturally significant native species, including traditional foods such as huckleberry, chokecherry, camas, and wapato” and develop a plan to increase the resiliency of such riverside species in consultation with the local tribe.

The River Democracy Act is as bold as Oregon’s rivers are beautiful. If enacted, it will be one not just for the history books but for the generations.