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 their...

Agency officials are required to coordinate when their responsibilities relevant to wild and scenic rivers overlap.  Officials should determine the level of study to be conducted, who will lead the study, and, to the extent necessary and feasible, prepare a joint document for submission to Congress or congressional delegations.

No, not unless necessary to protect public safety, the river’s water quality, or other resource values. Recreational use of our nation’s rivers is increasing in both magnitude and extent, i.e., the types of recreational activities pursued and the technologies being used. Whether and how to restrict recreational use is a key issue in the planning process, which includes extensive local, regional, and national public involvement.

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.

When Congress proposes a bill to designate an eligible river for which a suitability study has not been completed, the potential river-administering agency should endeavor to:

  1. Describe the resource and social factors typically evaluated in a study;
  2. Identify potential issues; and
  3. Assess its ability to manage the recommended component as a wild and scenic river.

This information provides the basis for the Administration’s decision to support or oppose the proposed designation.

No. Federal agencies do not have the authority to reimburse landowners for damage to their lands as a result of public use. However, wild and scenic river designation is unlikely to increase or invite vandalism. Granting access remains the owner’s responsibility and vandalism is handled by local law enforcement authorities. Federal river-administering agencies do, however, work closely with landowners to minimize problems through brochures and maps, signs, etc., and many landowners feel they are better off with the agency taking some responsibility.

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.

Under Section 5(a), Congress directs that a study be conducted on identified river segments (usually within three years).  The designated federal agency conducts a study and subsequently reports its findings through the appropriate Secretary.  As a general rule, where joint agency jurisdictions are involved, the cooperating agencies coordinate their efforts prior to making recommendations or submitting reports.

Under Section 5(d)(1), federal agencies are directed to identify and evaluate potential additions to the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System through agency land or...

No. The public’s right to float a particular river does not change with designation. Neither does designation give river users the right to use, occupy, or cross private property without permission.

No. Under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, the federal government has no authority to regulate or zone private lands. Land use controls on private lands are solely a matter of state and local zoning. Although the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act includes provisions encouraging the protection of river values through state and local governmental land use planning, there are no binding provisions on local governments. In the absence of state or local river protection provisions, the federal government may seek to protect values by providing technical assistance, entering into agreements with...

Yes. Section 7(b) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act provides the same protection to study rivers authorized by Congress, except that the qualifying word “unreasonably” does not appear before “diminish” for projects located above, below, or on a stream tributary to the study segment’s boundaries. The intent and effect is to provide greater protection for study rivers from proposed hydroelectric facilities or other federally assisted water resource projects during the time-limited study process. Identical protection from water resource projects also applies to rivers that were previously...

Differences include, but are not limited to, the following areas:

  1. Motorized boats and other motors may be allowed in wild and scenic rivers classified as wild, whereas the administering Secretary has the discretion to continue the use of motorized boats and airplane landings in wilderness where such uses are traditionally established. In areas that are both a wild and scenic river and wilderness, the most restrictive provisions of the two acts apply, subject to any area-specific legislative language.

  2. New dams are prohibited in wild and scenic rivers. The...

Section 6(a)(1) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act states:

The Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture are each authorized to acquire lands and interests in land within the authorized boundaries of any component of the national wild and scenic rivers system designated in Section 3 of this act . . . but he shall not acquire fee title to an average of more than 100 acres per mile on both sides of the rivers.

The Wild & Scenic Rivers Act authorizes fee title acquisition to the equivalent of about a 400 foot wide strip of land...

No. The Wild & Scenic Rivers Act does not limit the amount of land that may be acquired through purchase of easements, i.e., acquisition of partial rights, such as development rights.

Yes. There are four other principal agencies with authority on rivers, including wild and scenic rivers, in the United States. The EPA has authority to protect water quality; the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) has jurisdiction for water resources projects; the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) has jurisdiction on inland navigable waters, vessel inspecting and licensing, safety and boating enforcement, aids to navigation, and permitting of bridges; and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has authority to license the construction of hydroelectric projects.

Yes. The “equal footing” principle of the Constitution and the Submerged Lands Act of 1953 afford each state the ownership of lands and natural resources under navigable rivers. These submerged lands generally extend from bank-to-bank or to the mean or ordinary high water mark.

Yes. Section 6(b) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act specifically prohibits the use of condemnation for fee title purchase of private lands if 50 percent or more of the acreage within the boundaries on both sides of the designated river is in public ownership (i.e., owned by the federal, state, or local government). In addition, Section 6(a)(1) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act prohibits acquiring more than 100 acres per river mile within the corridor, which equates to a stip of land about 400-feet wide along both sides of the river. Fee title condemnation is allowed to clear title or...

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...

The priority date is the date the river was added to the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System.


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.

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 13(g) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act allows the granting of easements and rights-of-way within the boundaries of designated components in accordance with applicable laws, provided that the conditions attached to the grant are consistent with the purposes of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.

Any portion of a right-of-way project that includes federally assisted construction that may affect the river’s free-flowing condition—and is not automatically prohibited by the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act—is subject to an evaluation by the river-administering agency under Section...

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?  ...

Land acquisition is one tool for protecting and enhancing river values. It may also be an important means of providing public access to a wild and scenic river. Notwithstanding Section 6 of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, however, Congress has pre-empted some or all of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act’s federal land acquisition authorities in the enabling acts for certain wild and scenic rivers where the river study demonstrated that protective zoning or other conservation practices provided adequate safeguards for river values.

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.

Timber management activities on non-federal lands outside the corridor are guided by state and local authorities. The river manager may provide technical assistance and/or work with state/local governments to protect river values.

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...

In agency parlance used for planning purposes, river “areas” include the entire length of a study or designated river and its adjacent lands, an average of 320 acres per river mile (except on certain other rivers as specified by Congress and in Alaska, which is 640 acres for rivers located outside national parks). A river “segment” is a portion of the river area which has been delineated for evaluation and planning purposes. Its subsequent classification is dependent upon the level of development of the shoreline, watercourse and access at the time of designation. Significantly different...

Yes.  The federal agency should consider a wide variety of internal and external sources from which to identify potentially eligible rivers.  These sources may include:  American Rivers’ “Outstanding Rivers List,” statewide river inventories/assessments, published guidebooks, etc.  The important point is to develop and apply standardized criteria through a documented evaluation process for potential wild and scenic rivers.

Yes. To withdraw a scenic or recreational river segment, the managing agency must submit a separate public land order or notice of realty action.

There are more appropriate and cost-effective ways to ensure resource conservation along wild and scenic rivers than using the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act’s condemnation authority. (Refer to Protecting Resource Values on Non-federal Lands (1996).)

Agencies may acquire properties using appropriated funds under the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act or other authorities. Owners are contacted in order to see if an exchange or voluntary purchase can be negotiated.

Section 13(c) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act expressly reserves the quantity of water necessary to protect river values, including water quality and flow-dependent outstandingly remarkable values. This reservation of water is called a federal reserved water right and is generally adjudicated in a state court (e.g., basin-wide adjudication). River designation does not supersede existing, valid water rights.

Refer also to CRS Report for Congress, The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and Federal Water Rights, by Cynthia Brougher (January 9, 2009).



A range of projects are allowable to restore natural channel processes and habitat, including placement of limited rock and wood, native plantings to stabilize streambanks, and the removal or addition of fish barriers. Such projects are most likely to protect river values, including a river’s free-flowing condition, provided they: 

  1. Mimic the effects of naturally occurring events such as trees falling in and across the river (including the formation of wood jams), boulders tumbling in or moving down the river course, exposure of bedrock outcrops, bank sloughing or undercutting...

There are a number of steps that federal agencies use in their evaluation process:

  • Assessment of free-flowing condition and resource values.
  • Finding of eligibility or ineligibility.
  • Inventoried or tentative classification based on the development of shoreline, watercourse, and access.
  • Establishment of tentative, preliminary, or proposed boundaries and/or river areas.
  • Establishment of protective management requirements for eligible rivers.

For state-designated rivers, a governor may submit an application to the Secretary of the Interior under Section 2(a)(ii) of the Act.  If found eligible, and if sufficient protection is afforded by the state, the Secretary may make the designation.  Rivers designated in this manner continue to be administered by the state (sometimes with assistance from local governments), except for any federal lands along the river.  If there are federal lands located along the river, the state and federal river-administering agencies may enter into an agreement to outline federal/state management roles...

There are three instances when federal agencies assess eligibility: 1) at the request of Congress through specific authorized studies; 2) through their respective agency inventory and planning processes; or 3) during National Park Service evaluation of a Section 2(a)(ii) application by a state. River areas identified through the inventory phase are evaluated for their free-flowing condition and must possess at least one outstandingly remarkable value.

The need to clarify a segment division should be identified as a management concern/public issue during the planning process and considered in establishment of the initial boundary. The proposed clarification associated with establishment of initial boundaries must be undertaken with full public input and disclosure and is often completed during development of the comprehensive river management plan (CRMP).

In rare instances where the agency did not define the segment division to fit on-the-ground practicalities (e.g., a terminus described in legislation as “from the bridge”...

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.

The communities of interest are key players in the development of a CRMP. They help with data collection and establishing baseline conditions, identifying issues and opportunities to be addressed in the planning process and, increasingly, in monitoring and implementation of aspects of the CRMP. Sections 10(e) and 11(b)(1) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act anticipate the participation of federal, state or local governments, landowners, private organizations and/or individuals in planning, protecting and administering wild and scenic rivers.

Timber management activities on non-federal lands within wild and scenic river corridors are guided by state and local authorities. Under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, the only way the federal government can restrict private timber management is through purchase of timber rights (in easement or fee title). The river manager may provide technical assistance and/or work with state/local governments to protect river values.

No.  The Interagency Wild & Scenic River Guidelines state, “There are no specific requirements concerning the length or the flow of an eligible river segment.  A river segment is of sufficient length if, when managed as a wild, scenic or recreational river area, the outstandingly remarkable values are protected.  Flows are sufficient if they sustain or complement the outstandingly remarkable values for which the river was designated.

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.

Some examples of other similar outstandingly remarkable values include botanical, hydrological, paleontological, scientific, or heritage values.

No. Where tribal lands are involved, sovereign tribes retain authority over the lands; however, the river-administering agencies seek opportunities to collaborate in protecting values of joint concern.

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...

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).

Wild and scenic river status does not provide federal authority to regulate private lands. The river-administering agency will cooperate with state and local agencies to appropriately monitor and evaluate activities on private land. If such activities (existing or potential) threaten or are incompatible with the values that contributed to the river’s designation, then, to the extent necessary, mitigation will be accomplished in cooperation with landowners and federal, state and local agencies.

Yes. Motorized access allowed prior to designation will, generally, be allowed post designation, subject to congressional intent and river management objectives. However, if motorized use adversely impacts a river’s water quality or outstandingly remarkable values, or if the use is not consistent with the river’s classification the route may be closed or regulated.

The continued legality of motorized use on land or water is best determined through the river management planning process, which considers factors such as impacts on river values, user demand for such motorized...