United States: The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

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“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 immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.” – The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

Fifty years ago, environmentalists and dam builders in the United States were locked in a bitter battle. Dam building had swept the nation in the 1940s and ’50s, blocking and impounding some of the most important rivers of the American west. On the Snake River (where controversies about dams continue to this day), dam construction had led to a massive fish kill and decimated salmon and steelhead runs.

Frank Church, a senator from the state of Idaho, originally supported the dams. But having seen the environmental damage they created, he spoke out for rivers. He saw “a groundswell of public concern for the fate of these majestic streams, many of them threatened by dams which would forever destroy their beauty and ecology.” Church authored the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which was passed in 1968. The Act now protects more than 12,000 miles of free-flowing rivers in the US.

Critics note that the act applies to just .25% of the country’s rivers. As of 2009, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act had protected more than 12,000 miles of 252 rivers across the nation. By comparison, more than 84,000 dams across the country have modified at least 600,000 miles of American rivers.

The following are some of the US organizations working to protect rivers in the US and to see that the law is implemented: American Rivers, American Whitewater and The Waterkeepers Alliance.

Read the full text of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

PhotoPresident Lyndon B. Johnson signs the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act into law as others look on on October 2, 1968. Photo courtesy of LBJ Presidential Library.