A year ago U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Oregonians to nominate their favorite rivers to be included in an expansion of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Thousands of nominations poured in, and Wednesday the legislation to have some of those rivers formally protected was introduced to Congress.
If passed, the River Democracy Act will add nearly 4,700 miles of rivers and streams in Oregon to the protected system, according to a release. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., is helping Wyden get the legislation through Congress.
Wild and Scenic Rivers is a special designation that protects rivers and develops them for tourism, in the same way that a national park protects a designated area of land. The idea behind the designation was developed in the late 1960s and formally adopted in October 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The act includes sections of several rivers in Central Oregon, including the Deschutes and Fall rivers and Tumalo Creek. One of the nominations for Tumalo Creek came from a group of sixth graders at Pacific Crest Middle School.
“Oregonians made it loud and clear, they cherish Oregon’s rivers and want them protected for generations to come,” said Wyden in a statement. “More protected rivers and clear management objectives mean more jobs, improved wildfire resiliency, and a guarantee for the livability of Oregon.”
In addition to protection and tourism development, the corridor of land alongside each rivers is also treated to reduce wildfire risk — increasingly important as climate change dries out the large areas of the Western U.S. Another goal is to sustain populations of endangered fish and wildlife.
“Wild and Scenic Rivers hold many backcountry values for hunters and anglers,” said Ian Isaacson, Oregon board chair of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “They offer opportunities for solitude. They provide necessary fish and wildlife habitat.”
Once a river falls under the Wild and Scenic designation, federal land managers will be required to assess wildfire risks in the area. Plans must include assessing wildfire risks to nearby homes and businesses as well as ways to restore water quality from environmental damage caused by wildfire.
The bill also encourages federal land managers to develop river management plans in collaboration with Native American tribes as a way to keep their voices heard. Tribes across the Pacific Northwest voiced support for the legislation.
“Careful management around our rivers is necessary to maintain good drinking water, healthy fish runs, and the beauty that our rivers offer to us and our guests,” said Dan Courtney of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians.
In Central Oregon, rivers and creeks that are part of the bill include:
• North Fork Crooked River: The bill adds 3.5 miles to the main stem plus several tributaries (66.5 miles total).
• Metolius River: No new additions to the main stem. Additions are tributaries (36 miles).
• Whychus Creek: 7.6 miles of the main stem (above its confluence with the Deschutes River), plus 5.9 miles of Snow Creek (tributary of the Whychus).
• Tumalo Creek: 24.7 miles added.
• Deschutes River: an 8.4-mile section from Lava Lake to Crane Prairie Reservoir.
• Fall River: two separate sections totaling more than 7 miles.
• Browns Creek: a 2.7-mile section.
• Paulina Creek: an 8.6-mile section.
• Cultus River: a 1.9-mile section.
Around 2,500 Oregonians submitted more than 15,000 nominations to be included in the act, which builds on legislation passed in 2019 that added more than 250 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers in Oregon.
Oregon now has 2,173 miles designated in the Wild and Scenic Rivers system, but that total is just a fraction of Oregon’s 110,994 miles of rivers and streams.
By expanding the river network, Oregonians “can protect the health of delicate ecosystems and strengthen access to high-quality drinking water, while increasing wildfire resilience, and bolstering our recreation economy,” said Merkley.
The bill is good news not just for environmental protections and wildfire resilience, it is also meant to help the economy — river rafting, fishing and hiking trips help boost jobs and spending. In Oregon, outdoor recreation supports more than 224,000 jobs and generates $9.3 billion in wages and compensation, according to the Oregon Tourism Commission.
“As a fly-fishing guide and owner of a fly-fishing shop, my livelihood depends on Wild and Scenic Rivers like the Deschutes, Crooked, and Metolius,” said Jeff Perin, owner of the Flyfishers Place in Sisters. “These are challenging times for small-business owners and having access to protected rivers is more essential than ever.”