The Act provides a national policy and program to preserve and protect selected rivers, or segments of rivers, in their free-flowing condition in the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System.  Section 1(b) of the Act states:

It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and...

Local government entities are encouraged by federal management agencies to provide for the protection of wild and scenic river values in their land use plans, including the use of zoning and other land use measures.

State land-use requirements often require each local jurisdiction to address uses and activities within wild and scenic river areas in their planning updates. Such local planning may be carried out by comprehensive plan policies, zoning requirements, negotiations with landowners, or through other mechanisms.

No. However, all treatments must protect river values. Treatment methods that also include in-channel activity (e.g. dredging) are subject to review under Section 7(a) as water resources project.

Once determined eligible, river segments are tentatively classified for study as either wild, scenic, or recreational based on the level of development of the shoreline, watercourse and access at the time of river is found eligible. If designated by Congress, the river’s enabling legislation generally specifies the classification.

In the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, river values identified include scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values. The Wild & Scenic Rivers Act does not further define outstandingly remarkable values. However, agency resource professionals have developed interpretive criteria for evaluating river values (unique, rare, or exemplary) based on professional judgment on a regional, physiographic, or geographic comparative basis. (Refer to The Wild & Scenic River Study Process (1999).)

The river-administering agency must take the actions necessary to remedy adverse impacts and/or show measurable progress in addressing identified adverse effects. The Wild & Scenic Rivers Act gives river-administering agencies authority to adjust or eliminate livestock grazing, or any other commercial use, if doing so is necessary to meet the protection and enhancement standard.

It depends on whether the collecting activity is commercial or noncommercial in nature and subject to river-administering agency regulation. Mining under the 1872 mining law is a commercial and business activity tied to valid existing rights of claims and is regulated as such (36 CFR 228, 43 CFR 3809, 8365, et al).

Non-commercial mineral collecting for recreational purposes (e.g., hobby collecting, rock-hounding, gold panning, sluicing, or dredging) may be authorized by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service depending on the amounts collected, size and scale of...

Generally, no. Any provisions for public use of private lands must be specifically included in the terms of the easement. Depending upon the terms and conditions of each easement, public access rights may or may not be involved. For example, a scenic easement may only involve the protection of narrowly defined visual qualities with no provisions for public use. A trail or road easement by necessity may involve public use provisions.

No. The Wild & Scenic Rivers Act specifically prohibits the federal government from expending funds on Section 2(a)(ii) rivers, except to manage federal lands or to provide technical assistance to local managers.

Easements on private lands acquired for the purposes of protecting wild and scenic rivers do not provide public access unless this right was specifically acquired from the private landowner. A trail or road easement by necessity would involve public use provisions. Any provisions for public use of private lands must be specifically purchased from the landowner.

The Wild & Scenic Rivers Act does not specifically mention aquatic or upland non-indigenous species. While non-indigenous species may be introduced—provided that doing so is not contrary to another law or the policy of the managing agency, and would not result in the degradation to the river’s values—the use of native species is generally preferred. Indirect impacts of introducing non-indigenous species, e.g., increasing recreational fishing, should also be considered. Additional guidance for a specific river is usually included in its management plan.

Regardless of the study agency’s eligibility and suitability findings, a Section 5(a) study river is protected by the conditions and restrictions specified in Sections 7(b), 8(b), 9(b), and 12(a) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act during the period of the study, plus up to three years after the required report is submitted to Congress. In other words, these protections are independent of the recommendation of the study, allowing for Congressional consideration.

As of June 2022, some 226 river segments comprising 13,417 miles have been afforded protection in the National System.  These nationally recognized rivers comprise some of the nation’s greatest diversity of recreational, natural, and cultural resources, offering great scientific value and scenic beauty.  By comparison, more than 75,000 large dams across the country have modified at least 600,000 miles, or about 17% of America’s rivers (possibly more than 20% – figures are best estimates).

The federal government has rarely exercised its eminent domain powers with respect to wild and scenic rivers. Of the 226 rivers in the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System as of June 2022, condemnation for fee title has been used on only four rivers. Nearly all of the federal government’s use of condemnation occurred in the early years of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act’s implementation when the attitudinal climate was one of federal acquisition. Similarly, the use of scenic easement condemnation has also been used very rarely, and then only on seven rivers, all designated prior to...

The river-administering agency is obligated to identify, monitor and report violations of water quality standards to the appropriate federal or state agency. In addition, the river-administering agency often develops and implements management actions to protect and enhance water quality through partnerships with local and state agencies, and water conservation districts. The Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, however, does not reassign EPA and/or state responsibility for implementation of the Clean Water Act to the river-administering agency.

Yes, the federal government may seek to control use on adjacent lands under very limited circumstances. The Constitution gives the federal government certain limited powers to control uses on state-owned lands that affect adjacent federal property. These powers may be exercised through the Property Clause, which provides that, “Congress shall have the power to make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or the property belonging to the United States.”

The federal government may also regulate use and/or activities occurring on the surface waters...

Suitability is an assessment of factors to provide the basis for determining whether to recommend a river for addition to the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System. Suitability is designed to answer these questions:

  1. Should the river’s free-flowing character, water quality, and outstandingly remarkable values (ORVs) be protected, or are one or more other uses important enough to warrant doing otherwise?

  2. Will the river’s free-flowing character, water quality, and ORVs be protected through designation? Is it the best method for protecting the river corridor...

A Section 5(d)(1) study river is protected to the extent of each study agency’s authority and not by the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. Each agency’s policy is to protect eligible rivers and rivers determined suitable for designation for the life of the respective agency land use plan. A river determined not suitable for designation need no longer be protected as a potential addition to the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System once the study, with its related decision document, is completed.

Many individuals and communities support designation to help focus management efforts on protecting and enhancing river values. The intent of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act is to build partnerships among landowners, river users, tribal nations and all levels of governments in developing goals for river protection. Designation provides strong protection against construction of new dams and projects that alter the free-flowing condition, water quality, and outstandingly remarkable values for which the river was designated.

Agency land use or resource management plan records should include documentation of the eligibility criteria, inventory process, evaluation, and outcome. Agency field offices retain the administrative record and documents related to an assessment of the free-flowing condition and identification of outstandingly remarkable values.

Ideally one coordinated CRMP is developed with each wild and scenic river-administering agency documenting its respective decisions. In a few cases, separate plans may be required. However, even in this case, the planning process is conducted jointly to the greatest extent possible to ensure consistency of outstandingly remarkable values, classification, standards, and monitoring.

It is important to develop and apply standardized criteria through a documented evaluation process that may include a screening for potential wild and scenic rivers. If there doubt, evaluate the river according to the criteria in the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, i.e., free-flowing condition and outstandingly remarkable values.

No. Navigability determinations are based on factors other than wild and scenic river designation. Because of this, designation does not affect ownership of the submerged lands [or minerals lying] under the river.

WSR designation seeks to protect and enhance a river’s current natural condition and provide for public use consistent with retaining those values. Designation affords certain legal protection from adverse development, e.g., no new dams may be constructed, nor federally assisted water resource development projects allowed that are judged to have an adverse effect on designated river values. Where private lands are involved, the federal managing agency will work with local governments and owners to develop voluntary protective measures.

No. The protection afforded by Section 7(b) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act does not apply to Section 5(d)(1) study rivers. However, the managing agency should, within its authorities, protect the values which make the river eligible or suitable (free-flowing condition, water quality and outstandingly remarkable values).

Review of hydroelectric and federally water resources projects under Section 7 of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act is complex. Please refer to Wild & Scenic Rivers Act: Section 7 (2004), a technical report of the Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers...

River-administering agencies use a variety of approaches to protect or enhance water quality including, but not limited to: developing a cooperative water quality plan with the EPA and state agencies; securing cooperative funding to assess or remediate problems; and providing technical assistance to landowners and communities, often through local conservation districts.

Generally, no. Restrictions on public boating access and the implementation of entry permit systems (rationing and/or allocation) are not usually related to designation. Limitations on boating usually relate to the amount of use and/or types of user. Those rivers with use levels or types of use beyond acceptable limits (i.e., resulting in impacts to the values) may necessitate restricted access regardless of designation.

For rivers designated under Section 3(a) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, a state’s responsibilities include:

  • Regulating and enforcing fishing and hunting regulations.

  • Adjudicating water rights and appropriation.

  • Developing and administering water quality standards.

  • Administering state land use regulations on non-federal lands.
  • Managing state lands and facilities along the river (e.g., state highways, parks, forests).

No. The designation does not supersede existing, valid water rights.


Water law is a complex legal area, and water rights are a highly contentious issue. Whenever a water allocation issue arises, a river manager should consult with staff with water rights expertise and, as necessary, seek legal counsel.

Yes, if they are consistent with management objectives for the river and do not degrade water quality or the outstandingly remarkable values for which the river was designated.

Citizen stewards are increasingly important in protecting wild and scenic river values, often through river-specific or regional stewardship organizations. Individually, or through nonprofit entities, citizens help survey and monitor resource conditions, provide interpretive and education opportunities, contribute to restoration efforts, and support many other protection activities.

Yes. Legal descriptions along with a map are submitted to Congress in accordance with Sections 3(b) and (c) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act and are retained by the administering agency. Requests for maps should be made to the agency field offices which administer the specific study or designated river(s).

The federal wild and scenic river-administering agency is responsible for implementing the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act’s requirements, including the development of a comprehensive management plan for each river within three full fiscal years from the date of designation. It is also responsible to protect and enhance a river’s values, through its authorities on federal lands and through voluntary, cooperative strategies developed with other governments, tribal nations, and landowners on non-federal lands, and to evaluate water resources projects under Section 7(a).

The study report for a congressionally authorized Section 5(a) study river is required to be forwarded by the study agency within the period specified in Section 5(b). This study report must be forwarded to Congress no matter what the outcome of the study.

Unlike the firm deadlines established for Section 5(a) study reports, the Act is silent in regard to Section 5(d)(1) rivers. Thus the river-administering agencies have considerable latitude in how and when to transmit the study report for rivers they have found suitable and are recommending to Congress for designation. The...

Circumstances where agencies should always seek information and advice from each other are:

  1. In agency inventory and planning processes, and environmental analysis processes for aquatic ecosystems and regional watersheds; and,
  2. When proposed actions have the potential of affecting other agency-administered portions of the river.

Section 16(b) of the Act defines free-flowing as “existing or flowing in a natural condition without impoundment, diversion, straightening, rip-rapping, or other modification of the waterway. The existence, however, of low dams, diversion works and other minor structures at the time any river is proposed for inclusion in the national wild and scenic rivers system shall not automatically bar its consideration for such inclusion: Provided, that this shall not be construed to authorize, intend, or encourage future construction of such structures in components of the national wild and...

Protective management of federal lands in the river area begins at the time the river segment(s) has been found eligible.  The free-flowing condition, identified outstandingly remarkable values, and classification are protected to the extent authorized under law and subject to valid existing rights.  Affording adequate protection requires sound resource management decisions based on National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis.  Protective management should be initiated by the administering agency as soon as eligibility is determined.  Specific management...

Examples include, but are not limited to, bank stabilization/revetments; bridges (e.g., abutments, piers, approaches); emergency repairs; channelization; channel restoration; culverts; dams and dam removal; dredging or excavation; fish habitat/passage restoration or enhancement; gravel mining; in-channel transmission towers; levees; pipelines; recreation facilities such as boat ramps and fishing piers; water diversions/wells; and activities that are authorized under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE).

Review of...

A river identified for study under Section 5(d)(1) is protected by each agency’s policy; i.e., the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act provides no statutory protections. To the extent of each agency’s authority, the river’s free-flowing condition, water quality, outstandingly remarkable values, and classification are protected. Prior to a suitability study, the inventoried classification is protected. If, as the result of a suitability study, a less restrictive classification is recommended for a river or portion thereof, the agency is obligated to protect this recommended classification.

In many cases, there may be no practical effect. However, laws like the Wilderness Act do allow certain activities in designated wilderness which may be incompatible on a wild and scenic river, e.g., water resource developments if authorized by the President. In addition, wild and scenic river designation prohibits federal participation in, or assistance to, water resource developments upstream or downstream of a designated river (potentially outside the wilderness area) which may adversely affect the designated river segment. Agencies are required by policy and law to evaluate potential...

Yes. Such projects may be constructed to protect and enhance fish and wildlife. In-channel structures (e.g., placement of large wood to replicate natural stream conditions) and in-channel activities (e.g., dredging to protect listed species) are acceptable, provided they do not have a direct and adverse effect on the values of the river (its free-flowing condition, water quality, and outstandingly remarkable values. Similarly, in-channel habitat projects may also be constructed below/above a designated river so long as they do not unreasonably diminish the scenic, recreational, and fish...

The Wild & Scenic Rivers Act states that rivers designated under Section 2(a)(ii) “shall be administered by the State or political subdivision thereof without expense to the United States other than for administration and management of federally owned lands.” The state is responsible for providing protection, except on federally administered lands and with respect to Section 7(a) determinations and securing a federal reserved water right under Section 13(c), both of which are made by a federal agency. The National Park Service provides ongoing technical assistance and partnership...

The government typically provides technical assistance to find ways to alleviate or mitigate the actual or potential threat(s). Purchasing a partial right (easement) or the property in fee title is usually the last resort. If an easement is purchased, the owner would sell certain development rights and receive a payment, yet retain title to the land.

For 5(a) studies, the study report, planning document and combined National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis are submitted to the agency head for review and subsequent transmittal to Congress, which decides the final disposition of the river.

For 5(d)(1) studies, the study report and combined NEPA analysis (if conducted as a separate study), or study report prepared from the underlying land management plan, are submitted through the study agency and its respective department for review. The final study report is transmitted by the appropriate Secretary to Congress, which...

Section 4(f) refers to the original section within the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) Act of 1966 (49 U.S.C. Section 303(c); 23 U.S.C. Section 138). The DOT Act was enacted to ensure that transportation plans and programs include measures to maintain or enhance the natural beauty of publicly owned public parks, recreation areas, wildlife/waterfowl refuges, and historic sites of local, state, or national significance transversed by highways.

Maintenance of roads generally would not be affected. In consultation with landowners involved through coordinated management planning, every effort would be made to eliminate or reduce adverse impacts from any proposals for road improvement, realignment and/or new construction. If a proposed new road would have a negative impact on river values, the administering agency will work with the landowner(s) to mitigate the proposal. Should mitigation and/or consultation fail to reduce adverse impacts to an acceptable level, the administering agency could negotiate with the landowner to purchase...

(*For some rivers, Congress has directed the river-administering agency in Section 3(b) to determine which classes “best fit the river or its various segments.”  These administratively segmented rivers should reflect on-the-ground circumstances and, therefore, are unlikely to require subsequent amendment.)

Yes. In a very few cases, the legislation designating a river erroneously describes a segment division and needs to be amended to fit on-the-ground circumstances. For example, the designating language for the Upper Rogue Wild & Scenic River...

Timber management activities on federal lands outside the corridor are managed to protect and enhance the values that caused the river to be designated. Measures needed to protect and enhance the river’s values are developed through the river planning process and include management direction as necessary for lands adjacent to the corridor.