Guest Column: Wrong time to expand Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

July 22, 2021
Guest Column: Wrong time to expand Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

Anyone who works the land should be wary of proposed legislation that applies federal Wild and Scenic River designations to 4,700 miles of Oregon rivers, streams, creeks, gulches, draws and unnamed tributaries.

The bill, proposed by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and promoted by environmental groups, has already received a committee hearing in the U.S. Senate, the first step toward passage.

S. 192, also known as the River Democracy Act, would apply half-mile buffer restrictions to proposed segments. If approved, it could impact public access, water resource management, forest and vegetation management, ranching and grazing, mining and other uses on an estimated 3 million acres of public lands — a land mass nearly twice the size of Delaware.

There are over 2,000 miles of Oregon rivers designated as Wild and Scenic. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 was intended to protect rivers with “outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values in a free-flowing condition.”

Yet S. 192 only classifies 15% of the proposed segments as rivers. The bill identifies hundreds of streams, creeks, draws, gulches and unnamed tributaries for Wild and Scenic designations, even though many do not even carry water year-round.

S. 192 violates the spirit of the 1968 law because it bypasses a mechanism for robust study and review of proposed waterways to immediately add an additional 4,700 miles to the Wild and Scenic Rivers system. If such studies were conducted, many areas included in S. 192 would likely be found ineligible or unsuitable for designation.

Considering past use and litigation of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the bill raises a lot of questions about how it will impact future access, private property and water rights and other traditional uses of both public and private land.

Arbitrary land designations can have a chilling effect on actions taken by federal land management agencies, including actions intended to improve the land. For example, a Wild and Scenic designation could discourage efforts to stabilize riverbanks to avoid losing farm and range land to erosion. That’s because federal courts have consistently upheld legal challenges by environmentalist groups against land management activities based on these designations.

For those of us concerned about severe wildfires, we are especially troubled with how S. 192 would affect fuels reduction efforts on federal lands. Nearly half a million acres of federally managed forestland burned in western Oregon in 2020. Approximately 280,000 acres burned at moderate and high severity, meaning at least 60% of a stand’s live trees were killed in a fire.

We are already frustrated with the slow pace of forest management and fuels reduction work on federal lands. Adding new restrictions and bureaucracy on 3 million acres of these lands will not repair an already-broken system. Despite claims made by proponents, S. 192 does not support wildfire mitigation.

Nothing in the bill directs or authorizes federal agencies to utilize all available land management tools — including mechanical treatments — to reduce the risk of severe wildfires, nor does it explicitly permit postfire restoration work, such as the removal of dead and dying trees, to maintain public access. Rather, the bill only allows agencies to consider prescribed fire, even though fire alone will not address heavy and unnatural fuel loads on already fire-prone landscapes.

As Oregon experiences another devastating wildfire season, this is the wrong time to add more layers of restrictions and bureaucracy on the management of public lands. Anyone with private lands near these proposed Wild and Scenic segments should also take a close look at this bill to see how it affects them.Photo U.S. Forest Service

By Nick Smith

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