What is meant by the terms “protect” and “enhance” from Section 10(a) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act?

Section 10(a) of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Wild & Scenic Rivers Act directs that:

Each component of the national wild and scenic rivers system shall be administered in such manner as to protect and enhance the values which caused it to be included in said system without, insofar as is consistent therewith, limiting other uses that do not substantially interfere with public use and enjoyment of these values.

In its technical report on managing wild and scenic rivers (Wild and Scenic River Management Responsibilities (2002)) the Council interprets Section 10(a) as: “Protect rivers by documenting and eliminating adverse impacts on values (free-flow, water quality, Outstandingly remarkable values), including activities that were occurring on the date of designation. Enhance rivers by seeking opportunities to improve conditions.”

While the term “protect” is interpreted by the Council above as “eliminating adverse impacts,” it is not interpreted as an absence of impacts. Rather, each wild and scenic river-administering agency must, based on best available scientific information and reasoned professional judgment, ensure that existing values are protected and, to the extent practical, enhanced. The river-administering agency must also establish a positive trajectory for any value that was in a degraded condition on or after the date of the river’s designation.

This direction by Congress, which has been affirmed in several court cases,* is why defining baseline conditions of the values for which the river was designated (free-flow, water quality, and outstandingly remarkable values) is critically important. This baseline serves as the basis from which the degree/intensity of existing and future impacts can be measured. All future activities are to be measured from this baseline to ensure continued high quality conditions and to eliminate adverse impacts (protect) or improve conditions (enhance) within the river corridor. If a thorough resource assessment that includes a baseline description of the Outstandingly remarkable values is not completed at the time of designation, this assessment should be included in the river management plan. The river management plan then establishes the baseline conditions at the time of designation—including a description of any degradation—and proposes management actions that will be taken to improve conditions until they meet the requirement to protect and enhance the river’s values, including free flowing condition, water quality, and outstandingly remarkable values.

* The following cases are discussed further in the Council’s March 2002 technical paper Wild and Scenic River Management Responsibilities:

  • Oregon Natural Desert Association v. Green (D. OR 1997)
  • Oregon Natural Desert Association v. Singleton (D. OR 1999)
  • Hells Canyon Alliance and Hells Canyon Preservation Council v. U.S. Forest Service (9th Cir. 2000)
  • Northwoods Wilderness Recovery v. U.S. Forest Service (W.D. MI 2001)
Interagency Wild & Scenic Rivers Council