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...

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

. . . the appropriate Secretary shall issue guidelines, specifying standards for local zoning ordinances, which are consistent with the purposes of this Act. The standards specified in such guidelines shall have the object of (a) prohibiting new commercial or industrial uses other than commercial or industrial uses which are consistent with the purposes of this Act, and (b) the protection of the bank lands by means of acreage, frontage, and setback requirements on development.

The Wild...

Wild and scenic river designation seeks to protect and enhance a river’s current condition. Generally, the classification of the river reflects the level of development at the time of designation, and future development levels must be compatible with such classification. Any proposed new developments on federal lands must be guided by land use and resource management objectives that are compatible with the river’s classification.

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...

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.

Yes. Under Section 5(a) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, the public is involved in the study of rivers authorized by Congress. The report associated with a congressionally authorized study addresses subjects such as current status of land ownership and use in the area; reasonably foreseeable potential uses of land and water which would be affected by designation; the federal agency to administer the river if designated; and the ability of, and estimated costs to, state and local agencies to participate in the administration of such rivers. The public and state, local and tribal...

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).

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...

Yes. The ability of the owner to buy, sell, donate, or leave property to heirs is unaffected by the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. Landowners who sell should inform the new owner of any easement transferred with the title.

Yes. Congress has frequently added wild and scenic river status to rivers flowing through national parks, national wildlife refuges, and designated wilderness. Each designation recognizes distinct values for protection, and management objectives generally designed to not conflict. In some cases, wild and scenic river designations extend beyond the boundaries of other administrative or congressional area designations, thereby providing additional protection to the free-flowing condition and river values of the area. Section 10(b) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act addresses potential...

River segments may be tentatively classified for protective management purposes prior to a final suitability determination and/or congressional action.  This ensures that river values and characteristics are protected (subject to agency policies and standards) until the evaluation process and possible designation is completed.

Rivers designated under Section 3(a) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, and most designated under Section 2(a)(ii), are classified in one of three categories depending on the extent of development and accessibility along each section. Designated river segments are classified and administered under one of the following, as defined in Section 2(b) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act:


Yes.  Congress and the Secretary of the Interior have designated many river segments which are above or below dams that have regulated flows.

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.

Congress may classify the river upon the date of designation or authorize classification by the managing agency.  In the latter case, managing agencies have one year to finalize the boundary, identify the appropriate classification, and publish a notice in the Federal Register.  The agency has three years to complete a management plan.  For Section 2(a)(ii) rivers, classification would be established when the Secretary of the Interior designates the river.

Should the purchase of land become necessary, condemnation is typically a last resort and only used when:

  1. Land is clearly needed to protect resource values, or provide necessary access for public recreational use, and a purchase price cannot be agreed upon.

  2. Clear title to a property is needed, in which case condemnation is merely a legal procedure that has nothing to do with government/landowner differences.

To be eligible for designation, a river must be free-flowing and contain at least one "outstandingly remarkable value," i.e., scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar value.

As provided in Sections 4(a) and 5(c) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, the following factors should be considered and, as appropriate, documented as a basis for the suitability determination for each river.

  1. Characteristics which do or do not make the area a worthy addition to the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System. These characteristics are described in the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act (see factors 2 through 7) and may include additional suitability factors (8 through 13).

  2. The current status of land ownership and use in the area.

  3. The...

(*For certain rivers, Congress 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 practicalities and, therefore, are unlikely to require subsequent amendment.)

Yes. While Congress specifies the segment divisions of a designated river, in some instances congressional language may require interpretation. For example, a segment division between a wild and scenic classification described as “from the bridge”...

Yes, a federal reserved water right is generally adjudicated in state court (e.g., basin-wide adjudication) in the western United States. It is less clear how federal reserved water rights are adjudicated in the eastern United States. Contact a staff expert and/or legal counsel when trying to protect water quantity.


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....

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.

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...

Yes, a CRMP is developed in compliance with the NEPA. The purpose and need for the proposed action is to protect and enhance the values for which the river was designated (free-flowing condition, water quality, and outstandingly remarkable values), within its classification(s). The proposed action establishes appropriate goals, objectives, and/or desired conditions to meet those purposes. Alternative courses of actions are developed and analyzed relative to achieving overall goals and desired conditions within the wild and scenic river corridor. A “no action” alternative, representing the...

Upon congressional authorization for a study (Section 5(a)) or by federal agency initiative (Section 5(d)(1)).

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.

Eligibility findings are made as a part of a congressionally authorized study under Section 5(a), or pursuant to agency inventory and planning under Section 5(d)(1).  For Section 2(a)(ii) rivers, the National Park Service will make an eligibility determination under authority delegated by the Secretary of the Interior following application by the governor(s) for federal designation.

Yes. While Congress specifies the termini of a designated river, in some instances congressional language may require interpretation. For example, a terminus described as “from the dam” could be interpreted as including the dam and dam-related facilities. However, to allow for continued dam maintenance, it may be appropriate to establish the boundary a very short distance below the dam or, through specific language, to exclude appurtenant facilities.

The river administrator is well advised to consider on-the-ground practicalities at the initial boundary setting stage, to the extent...

The requirement for a comprehensive river management plan (CRMP), does not apply to state-administered, federally designated rivers. Federal land managers are responsible for protecting river values in all agency planning and management actions for any portion of a 2(a)(ii) river that flows on federal lands. In some cases, the petitioning state has a requirement for a plan. The existence of a state or local plan to protect river values is one of the factors considered by the National Park Service in its review of the 2(a)(ii) nomination for the Secretary.

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...

Yes.  There are three classifications (wild, scenic and recreational) that may be applied to a particular river segment. Distinct segments along the designated reach may contain differing and non-overlapping classifications (wild, scenic, or recreational), e.g., a 100-mile wild and scenic river may be classified as wild for 50 miles, scenic for 30 miles, and recreational for 20 miles.

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.

Corridors may not exceed an average of 320 acres per river mile over the designated portion of the river (except on certain other rivers as specified by Congress and in Alaska, which is 640 acres for rivers located outside national parks). Agencies delineate boundaries based on natural or manmade features (canyon rims, roads and ridge tops, etc.) and legally identifiable property lines.

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.

Section 16(c) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act defines a scenic easement as follows:

“Scenic easement” means the right to control the use of land (including the air space above such land) within the authorized boundaries of a component of the wild and scenic river system, for the purpose of protecting the natural qualities of a designated wild, scenic, or recreational river area, but such control shall not affect, without the owner’s consent, any regular use exercised prior to the acquisition of the easement.

While the Wild & Scenic Rivers...

Under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, designation neither gives nor implies government control of private lands within the river corridor. Although many rivers include private lands within the boundaries of the designated river area, management restrictions would apply only to federal lands. The federal government has no power to regulate or zone private lands under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act; however, administering agencies may highlight the need for amendment to local zoning (where state and local zoning occurs). People living within a river corridor may use their property as...

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...

Once such a river has been found eligible, the federal study agency should, to the extent it is authorized under various laws and subject to valid existing rights, ensure the river and the surrounding area are protected as a potential wild and scenic river pending a suitability determination.

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.

No. Lands owned by a state may be acquired only by donation or exchange per Section 6(a)(1) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.

Generally, existing agricultural and grazing practices, and related structures are not affected by designation. The Wild & Scenic Rivers Act does not give federal agencies authority to regulate private land. Consequently, the only effect of designation is to authorize the purchase of easements within the river corridor, and to enable federal agency staff to provide technical assistance to private landowners interested in reducing impacts on the river’s water quality and riparian integrity.

Boundaries are measured from the ordinary high water mark of the outermost stream channel. That is, boundaries will be measured from the outermost braid unless otherwise specified by Congress. This is typically considered during the suitability determination and in the development of the final river corridor boundary.

Wild and scenic river designation does not change land ownership or grant new privileges to the public on private lands. If the riverbanks are in private ownership, the landowner continues to control their use after designation. Ownership of the bed and bank of a river may be affected by whether the river is determined navigable.

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.

Most current uses and activities on rivers and adjoining federal lands may continue. Of primary consideration in any river or land-use limitation is the protection and enhancement of the free-flowing condition, water quality, and outstandingly remarkable value(s) that resulted in the river’s designation. Those uses that clearly threaten these values will be addressed in the planning process, or through site-specific environmental analyses on a case-by-case basis where federal lands are involved.

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...

Projects with the following attributes are generally considered most harmonious with river ecosystems:

  • Those made of native materials, e.g., wood, rock, vegetation, and so forth that are similar in type, composition or species to those in the vicinity of the project.
  • Those using construction materials that are natural in appearance, e.g., logs with bark intact as opposed to being peeled and whole naturally weathered rocks as opposed to split or fractured (i.e., riprap).
  • Those with materials placed in locations, positions, and quantities mimicking natural...

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...

On September 7, 1982, the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior outlined in the Federal Register (47 FR 39454) eligibility and classification criteria, the evaluation process and content, and reporting requirements for potential wild and scenic rivers and management guidelines for designated wild and scenic rivers. These guidelines were formulated to provide a uniform evaluation and consistent management approach in the identification, evaluation, reporting, and management of wild and scenic river segments. These replaced earlier guidelines developed in 1970.

No. Non-indigenous species need not be removed unless they are degrading other important resource values. Practical considerations, such as the effort or expense of eradicating a non-indigenous species and its importance (e.g., game species), should also be considered. This issue is generally addressed in the management plan.