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...
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.
Yes. Water may be secured through a variety of protection strategies, in the interim. Ultimately, the United States should secure a federal reserved water right in state court or the appropriate forum. Interim measures may include, but are not limited to: state instream flow programs, reservoir operation schedules, endangered species flow recommendations, conservation techniques, cooperative agreements, and water right purchases from willing sellers.
Water law is a complex legal area, and water rights are a highly contentious issue. Whenever a water allocation...
Yes. The Wild & Scenic Rivers Act directs other federal agencies to protect river values. It explicitly recognizes the regulatory roles of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency in protecting wild and scenic rivers, and directs other federal departments and agencies that permit or assist in the construction of water resources projects to do likewise. The role of such federal agencies in water resources project construction may be through regulation, direct funding, or indirectly funding by providing federal assistance to others.
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. 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).
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.
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...
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.
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.
A variety of methodologies are used to determine instream flows necessary to protect flow-dependent outstandingly remarkable values for a specific wild and scenic river. Methodologies can range from staff/expert opinions (e.g., flows necessary for boating) to complicated hydraulic models (e.g., Instream Flow Incremental Methodology and Physical Habitat Simulation Models) used to simulate fish habitat requirements.
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...
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.
Should the purchase of land become necessary, condemnation is typically a last resort and only used when:
- Land is clearly needed to protect resource values, or provide necessary access for public recreational use, and a purchase price cannot be agreed upon.
- 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.
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.
Camping is often important to the enjoyment of wild and scenic rivers. As appropriate, and when private interests do not provide sufficient facilities, the federal managing agency attempts to provide them on federal lands. As a condition of use, consistent with river classification and the management objectives for the river area, the managing agency may specify that camping will be permitted only in designated locations. Enforcement of camping restrictions and limitations can be through indirect means (brochures, maps, signs, etc.) and/or direct means (permits, enforcement personnel, etc...
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...
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...
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).)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 prescriptions for eligible...
No. However, the federal land administering agency must protect wild and scenic river values on federal lands.
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.
Prior to 1986, Section 3(b) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act required the river-administering agency to “prepare a plan for necessary developments in connection with its administration in accordance with such classification.” Through a generic amendment of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act in 1986, Section 3 was amended with a new subsection requiring a “comprehensive management plan . . . to provide for protection of the river values” (Section 3(d)(1)). The comprehensive river management plan (CRMP) must address:
- Resource protection;
- Development of lands and...
Rivers included in the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System by act of Congress (under Section 3(a) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act) are administered by one of four federal agencies: Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and/or U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) as specified in the legislation. Rivers included in the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System at the request of a governor and designated by the Secretary of the Interior (under Section 2(a)(ii) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act) are administered by the respective...
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...
The requirements specified for a CRMP in Section 3(d)(1) are most often developed through a separate-in-time planning process. This can result in either an amendment to the direction in the agency’s unit-wide plan o a stand-alone plan, depending on agency practices. For designated rivers that are separate NPS units, the CRMP is the General Management Plan (e.g., St. Croix National Scenic Riverway).
River access is evaluated in the land use planning process. Specific access needs for public enjoyment, as well as any limitations, are determined in the river management plan. In keeping with the requirements of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, “wild” rivers are generally inaccessible, except by trail (no roads); “scenic” rivers are accessible by road, which generally don’t parallel the river; and “recreational” rivers may have parallel or crossing road and railroad access.
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.
(*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” may...
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 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...
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.
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 economic impacts of implementing various alternatives should be addressed through the evaluation process to determine whether a river is a suitable addition to the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System or through the river management planning process, or a designated wild and scenic river. Economic issues, such as development and ecotourism, both inside and outside of potentially designated river corridors may be considered.
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 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.
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.
Some examples of other similar outstandingly remarkable values include botanical, hydrological, paleontological, scientific, or heritage values.
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.
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. Regardless of whether a river is designated as a wild and scenic river, states have special responsibilities and management constraints with respect to state-owned lands underlying navigable waters. These special responsibilities arise from the Public Trust Doctrine, which requires states to exercise regulatory authority over navigable riverbeds to ensure that the paramount right of public use of the rivers and riverbeds for navigation, commerce, recreation, and related purposes is not substantially impaired. As a matter of common law, the states hold lands...
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.
Due to the dams, diversions, and water resource development projects that occurred from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, the need for a national system of river protection was recognized by conservationists (notably Frank and John Craighead), congressional representatives (such as Frank Church and John Saylor), and federal agencies. The Act was an outgrowth of the national conservation agenda of the 1950’s and 1960’s, captured in the 1962 recommendations of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission. The Act concluded that selected rivers be preserved in a free-flowing condition and be...
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.
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.