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...

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...

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

The CRMP for rivers designated on or after January 1, 1986, is to be completed within three full-fiscal years after the date of designation or as otherwise specified, with a notice of completion and availability published in the Federal Register. For rivers designated before this date, Section 3(d)(2) requires review of the CRMP to determine if it conforms to Section 3(d)(1). This provision allowed ten years to update pre-1986 plans through the planning processes of river-administering agencies. Note: This 10-year period expired January 1, 1996.

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.

Wild and scenic river study reports are prepared in three instances:

  1. When Congress authorizes a study pursuant to Section 5(a) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.

  2. For eligible rivers that have also been determined suitable by a federal land management agency pursuant to Section 5(d)(1) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, when the agency deems it appropriate to forward the recommendation.

  3. For state-nominated Section 2(a)(ii) rivers, the National Park Service prepares a report determining whether the candidate river meets the requirements of...

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...

Prior to completion of the CRMP, proposed projects and new decisions (e.g., issuance of a special-use permit) on federal lands are evaluated by the wild and scenic river-administering agency to ensure they protect and, to the extent possible, enhance river values (free-flowing condition, water quality and outstandingly remarkable values). The necessary evaluation framework is a detailed description of the existing conditions of these values at the time of designation. Absent this information it may not be possible to evaluate the effects of an activity relative to the non-degradation and...

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.

Section 8(a) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act withdraws public (federal) lands within the authorized boundary of a designated component from entry, sale, or other disposition under the public land laws of the United States.

Subject to valid existing rights, rivers authorized for study under Section 5(a) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act are withdrawn under the mining laws while in study status; this withdrawal covers the bed and bank and federal lands situated within one-quarter mile of the bank on each side of the river. River study areas are not withdrawn from mineral leasing but are subject to conditions determined by the appropriate Secretary necessary to safeguard the area during the study period. However, the bed and bank and federal lands within two miles of the bank of each side of the rivers...

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. 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 livestock grazing practices and related structures are not affected by designation. The Interagency Guidelines state that agricultural practices should be similar in nature and intensity to those present in the area at the time of designation, and that grazing may be compatible with all river classifications (wild, scenic or recreational). Grazing and other public uses may occur in a wild and scenic river corridor as long as the uses do not adversely impact or otherwise degrade the values for which a river was designated.

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.

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.

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...

The Department of Transportation (DOT), in coordination with the river-administering agency, performs compliance reviews for qualifying properties. While Section 4(f) requires that the river-administering agency’s recommendations for minimizing harm are considered during the planning process, the authority to administer and make Section 4(f) approvals ultimately resides with the DOT. The river-administering agency’s concurrence on any DOT Section 4(f) compliance documents should clearly state that its concurrence is contingent upon a favorable final determination for the project under...

River-administering agencies must evaluate proposed water resources projects under the appropriate standard of Section 7. The evaluative standard for projects located within a wild and scenic river corridor, Section 5(a) study area, or qualifying Section 2(a)(ii) application area is whether the project would have a “direct and adverse effect.” The evaluative standard for projects located downstream, upstream, or on a tributary to a wild and scenic river corridor or Section 5(a) study area is whether the project would “invade the area or unreasonably diminish” for designated wild and scenic...

Wild and scenic river designations generally cause property values to remain stable or increase. For example, see Economic Benefits of Conserved Rivers: An Annotated Bibliography (Porter, B., Collier, S., Becerra, N., and Schultz, J. 2001. National Park Service – Rivers and Trails Conservation and Assistance Program, Washington, DC. 27pp.).

Section 4(a) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act and the Interagency Guidelines describe and discuss content requirements, specific topics to be addressed, and the way in which information should be presented in such a study report. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process can, and is, readily merged with the requirements of the wild and scenic river study report. A wild and scenic river study report resulting from a decision in a land management plan usually summarizes and incorporates relevant information from the plan and associated NEPA document. For example, the location...

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 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.

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.

Existing powerline or communication transmission rights-of-way may continue to be used and maintained. New proposals would be evaluated for impacts to river values based on state and local zoning.

Once such a river segment has been found to be ineligible, the agency will manage the river and its corridor based on the underlying management direction in its programmatic plan and need no longer protect it as a potential wild and scenic river.

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.

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, 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.

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...

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).)

Yes. In some river study authorizations Congress has required the study agency to work with state and local governments and the public to develop a CRMP in concert with the study process to assist in determination of the river’s suitability. Such pre-designation CRMPs have, in some cases, been adopted in the legislation adding the river to the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System. In cases where Congress has not authorized a pre-designation CRMP, agencies have taken the initiative to develop elements of the CRMP in the study report (pre-designation).

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...

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.

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...

Most rivers have flexible boundaries to accommodate specific features and river values. (Refer to Establishment of Wild and Scenic River Boundaries (1998).)

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, 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...

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

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...

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, 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.

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.  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.

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...

Wild and scenic rivers may qualify as a Section 4(f) property, but designation of a river under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act does not invoke Section 4(f) in the absence of significant Section 4(f) attributes and qualities. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), in consultation with the river-administering agency, determines on a case-by-case basis whether Section 4(f) applies. For example, Section 4(f) may apply to reaches of designated wild and scenic rivers that are publicly owned, open to the public and include recreation as a primary purpose, feature, attribute, or 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...

Administering agencies do not have any authority to control public use of private lands. Granting of access remains the owner’s responsibility and trespass 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.