Bend Bulletin - Wild and Scenic designation needs clarity

It was a bit surprising to discover that some of the rivers proposed for Wild and Scenic designation were dried up or creeks, streams or gulches — not really rivers at all.

Missteps like that go to the heart of criticisms of sweeping legislation that paints a broad brush, but fails to look at the finer details.

A Senate bill that would designate nearly 4,700 miles as part of The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in Oregon is being criticized for including hundreds of small creeks, streams and gulches that were found to be completely dry, according to the Capital Press and its reporter, George Plaven.

The American Forest Resources Council, a trade group representing the timber industry, did an analysis of the proposal, arguing that certain non-river segments under consideration “do not meet the intent or definition of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.”

Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, introduced the River Democracy Act on Feb. 3. A year prior to that, there was a well-attended open house here in Bend, where many submitted comments on which rivers should be protected from development along their banks. The legislation came out of more than 15,000 nominations submitted by the public.

But according to the forest group, just 15% of the waterways are actually labeled as “rivers.” Out of 886 segments, 752 are identified as “streams,” rather than rivers. Another 33 are identified as “gulches,” one “draw” and 17 were “unnamed tributaries.”

The bill would roughly triple the number of wild and scenic rivers across Oregon to protect fish and wildlife, water quality and outdoor recreation values. It also increases wild and scenic river corridors from a quarter-mile to a half-mile on both sides, which adds up to approximately 3 million acres of protected land — an area approximately the size of Connecticut.

Cutting timber along streambanks is a well-known cause of sediment in rivers and a degradation of fish and wildlife habitat. But, the forest council’s president, Travis Joseph, makes a good point that restricting the ability to harvest trees when the state is in a grip of catastrophic wildfires and where thinning of trees can reduce the wildfire risk is detrimental to the bill’s intent.

Sen. Wyden says those claims are addressed in the bill, calling for coordination between state and federal agencies to allow for forest thinning.

But there needs to be some balance here. We can see the Willamette, Deschutes and Santiam rivers gaining some protection against development as they are truly wild and scenic rivers. Even the headwaters of these rivers deserve attention. But intermittent streams are not really rivers and should not be considered as such. We encourage some clarity on the issues, especially how state and federal agencies would be held accountable for working together. And perhaps removing some of the nonflowing streams from the list of this important designation would go a long way to boosting its credibility as a new piece of legislation.

Photo Credit Ryan Brennecke

By Gerry O’Brien