There are two ways rivers are designated in the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System:

  • By Act of Congress
    This requires legislation to amend Section 3(a) of the Act.  Rivers designated by Congress are listed in Section 3(a) of the Act.
  • By the Secretary of the Interior
    This requires...

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.

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...

Subject to valid existing rights, rivers authorized for study under Section 5(a) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act are withdrawn under the mining laws while in study status; this withdrawal covers the bed and bank and federal lands situated within one-quarter mile of the bank on each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 River study areas are not withdrawn from mineral leasing but are subject to conditions determined by the appropriate Secretary necessary to safeguard the area during the study period.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

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...

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 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...

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.

Through the various federal agencies’ land management planning processes and initiatives by the public, a significant number of rivers have been identified for study as potential additions to the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System. For example, the Nationwide Rivers Inventory (NRI), maintained by the National Park Service, has identified over 3,400 river segments as potential candidates for study and/or inclusion into the National System.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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...

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.).

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...

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...

The Act (Public Law 90-542; 16 U.S.C. 1271-1287) was signed on October 2, 1968. It has been amended many times, primarily to designate additional rivers and authorize additional rivers for study for possible inclusion.

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.

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.

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.

A primary objective of wild and scenic river designation is to protect and enhance riparian area function and other river-related natural values. Specific actions to meet the objective are typically set forth in the management plan required for each river.

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...

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.

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.

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...

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 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...

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.

A river authorized for study under Section 5(a) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act is subject to the conditions and restrictions specified in Sections 7(b), 8(b), 9(b), and 12(a) of the Act.

The river is protected for the duration of the study plus up to three years after the required report is submitted (along with the President’s recommendation) to Congress. Should Congress not act within the three-year time frame, the river is no longer afforded protection by the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. In cases where a study has not been submitted to Congress, the statutory protections...

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.

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.

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.

(*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...

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.

No. There are no special provisions limiting overflights of components of the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System. Certain designated wild and scenic rivers are located by coincidence within restricted overflight areas, but were not the cause of the restriction. Altitude restrictions for civil aircraft in the United States under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations (e.g, 14 CFR 91.119 and 91.515 which apply to U.S. airspace) and altitude guidelines in the Airman’s Information Manual (Section 4, paragraph 7-4-6) apply to certain chartered areas. The FAA has entered into...

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...

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...

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...

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.