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 16(b) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act defines a river as “a flowing body of water or estuary, or a section, portion, or tributary thereof, including rivers, streams, creeks, runs, kills, rills, and small lakes.”

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.

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...

(*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”...

The need to amend 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 amendment 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) as a basis to make a recommendation to Congress to amend the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.

The river-administering agency can only recommend such a change to Congress. A subsequent...

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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....

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...

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).

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”...

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.

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...

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.

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...

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.

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.

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.

Yes.  For purposes of eligibility evaluation, the volume of flow is sufficient if it is enough to sustain or complement the outstandingly remarkable values identified within the segment.  Rivers with intermittent or non-perennial flows exist within the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System and may be representative of rivers within particular physiographic regions.

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...

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.

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 Wild & Scenic Rivers Act anticipates the need for occasional adjustment of the lateral (river corridor) boundary, directing that such amendment follow the same process as described for the initial boundary development in Sections 3(b) and (c) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. The legally established river corridor might require amendment to better reflect protection of outstandingly remarkable values or as the result of identification of a new outstandingly remarkable value.

No restrictions to private lands may be applied under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. Comprehensive river management plans may establish goals for new construction consistent with classification. There is a wide range of uses compatible with these classifications so long as the overall values and character of the river corridor is maintained. Any effect on private lands would be through state or local zoning. Federal acquisition of lands or development rights would require landowner compensation.

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.

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.

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. 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.

All...

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.

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...

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...

Congress declared its intent to protect the water quality of rivers added to the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System in Section 1(b) of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. Congress further specified that the river-administering agencies cooperate with the EPA and state water pollution control agencies to eliminate or diminish water pollution (Section 12(c)).

Yes. Fishing and hunting are regulated under state laws. Where hunting and fishing were allowed prior to designation, they may continue. The river-administering Secretary may, however, designate no hunting zones or periods in which no hunting is allowed for public safety or other reasons. The Secretary must issue such regulation in consultation with the wildlife agency of the state(s).

(*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...

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.

Timber management activities on federal lands within wild and scenic river corridors must be designed to help achieve land-management objectives consistent with the protection and enhancement of the values that caused the river to be added to the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System. Management direction needed to protect and enhance the river’s values is developed through the river planning process. Wild and scenic river designation is not likely to significantly affect timber management activities beyond existing measures to protect riparian zones, wetlands, and other resource values...

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.

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...

Rivers in Alaska outside of national parks and Elkhorn Creek in Oregon (640 acres per river mile) exceed the 320 acre average.

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).

 

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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.

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...

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...

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.