Guest column: October is the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

October 26, 2018
Guest column: October is the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

Oregon is home to a number of iconic rivers, from the Deschutes and Metolius rivers in Central Oregon to gems like the North Umpqua and the Rogue. These rivers provide clean drinking water, fish and wildlife habitat and amazing recreational opportunities. As we celebrate the 50th birthday of one of our most important river conservation tools, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, it’s a good time to ask if we ought to be celebrating or worrying about our rivers.

In 1968, Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act largely in response to the dam-building spree that had been sweeping the nation.

The bill protects a narrow corridor along certain rivers from aggressive logging and other developments, and perhaps most importantly, prevents the building of new dams.

Dams disrupt, or prevent, the ability of salmon to swim upstream to reproduce. In effect, the act ended up being an essential tool to protect world-class rafting, fishing and hiking opportunities on several of Oregon’s most beautiful rivers.

Oregon has designated 1,900 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers, which sounds like a lot, until you think about how many rivers we have in the state. Overall, less than 2 percent of Oregon’s rivers are safeguarded as Wild and Scenic.

The Deschutes River is the closest Wild and Scenic River to Bend. Stretches of the river just upstream and downstream from town are protected, while the segment that runs through city limits (and all the irrigation infrastructure) is not protected. Generally speaking, Wild and Scenic Rivers are in a more natural condition and are less developed, albeit not necessarily pristine.

The rivers that are not protected by the act face a number of threats — including those that threaten the health of watersheds and the people who depend on them.

Oregon’s logging rules around streams are weaker than those of every one of our neighboring states. We allow logging in the riparian zone (the forested/vegetated buffer along the river’s edge), which reduces shade and results in warmer temperatures. It also leads to erosion. Poorly designed logging roads near streams often “bleed” sediment into the water every time it rains. All of this is bad news for clean drinking water and salmon.

Further complicating the future of Oregon’s rivers is climate change, which will result in less snowpack and longer droughts. Increased demand and development in places like Central Oregon will further exacerbate the demand on water.

In a rare bit of good news out of Congress, we can thank Oregon Sens. Wyden and Merkley for their efforts to protect more Wild and Scenic Rivers. After nearly a decade of work, they recently succeeded in advancing the Oregon Wildlands Act out of committee in the Senate (it’s awaiting a final vote).

The bill would protect several wilderness areas and designate over 250 miles of new Wild and Scenic Rivers, including the Molalla River and tributaries to the Rogue and Nestucca rivers.

Looking to the future, Oregon’s rivers will need our congressional delegation to step up and do more to protect rivers in Central Oregon, as well. Rivers like the North Fork Crooked in the Ochoco Mountains need increased conservation to safeguard water quality and recreational opportunities.

I encourage all of us, and especially our congressional delegation, to recommit to better protecting our Wild and Scenic Rivers for the next 50 years.

Let’s ensure that we, and future generations, can drink clean water, live in a world full of salmon and other wildlife and enjoy exceptional recreational opportunities in free-flowing rivers.

— Erik Fernandez is the wilderness program manager for Oregon Wild.

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