Learn more about the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the designation process, and what it means for protected rivers.

Why did Congress pass the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act?

Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act at the height of the modern dam-building era in order to ensure that the construction of new dams on rivers is balanced with the protection of select free-flowing rivers that possess nationally significant values. This landmark law is the highest form of protection for rivers in the United States.

In the words of Congress: “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.”

How does the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protect rivers?

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protects rivers in five major ways:
• It bans new federally-licensed dams and harmful water development projects.
• It ensures water quality is maintained and, where possible, enhanced.
• It protects each river’s outstanding values (e.g., scenery, culture, wildlife, recreation, etc.).
• It creates a junior, federally-reserved water right for the minimum flow necessary to maintain a river’s outstanding values.
• It requires the development of a Comprehensive River Management Plan to guide
management along designated rivers for a period of 10-20 years.

How many rivers are in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System?

As of March 2019, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System includes 226 river segments comprising 13,413 river miles across 41 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. This is less than one half of one percent of rivers in the United States. By comparison, more than 90,000 dams across the country have modified over 700,000 miles, or about 17% of U.S. rivers.

The top six states in terms of Wild and Scenic river mileage are Alaska (3,210 miles), California (1,971 miles), Oregon (1,839 miles), Idaho (890 miles), Michigan (625 miles), and Wyoming (408 miles). Arizona has 57.3 miles designated as Wild and Scenic, which is less than 1/10th of 1% of the state’s total river miles.

How are rivers added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System?

Typically, a river becomes designated Wild and Scenic first by being categorized as “eligible” for designation by the federal land management agency that oversees it, although Congress has designated many rivers that were not previously found eligible for protection. Any section of river that is free-flowing and possesses one or more “outstandingly remarkable values” (ORVs) can be found eligible for Wild and Scenic protection.

Rivers can be added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in one of two ways. The most common way is for Congress to pass legislation that is signed into law by the President. The less traditional way is for the Governor of a state to petition the Secretary of the Interior to add a river to the system, but that is only allowed in states that have their own state-protected river systems.

How wide are Wild and Scenic River corridors?

Wild and Scenic corridor boundaries are established to protect a river’s free-flowing condition, water quality, and the outstanding values for which it was designated. Generally, the corridor averages 320 acres per mile, which if applied uniformly along the entire designated segment, is a quarter-mile (1,320 feet) from the ordinary high water mark on each side of the river. Boundaries may be wider or narrower but are not to exceed the 320 acre average per mile without approval by Congress.

Relationship to Existing Uses

Learn more about the relationship between Wild and Scenic designation and existing activities along protected river segments.

Is livestock grazing allowed in Wild and Scenic River corridors?

Generally, livestock grazing and related infrastructure are not affected by Wild and Scenic
designation, with the caveat that agricultural practices cannot significantly harm ORVs. Practices similar in nature and intensity to those present in the river corridor at the time of designation are fine.

Are motorized vehicles allowed in Wild and Scenic River corridors?

Unlike the Wilderness Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act does not prohibit the use of motorized vehicles on land or on water within designated river corridors. In fact, several of the most well-known Wild and Scenic rivers in the country allow jet boating (e.g., Rogue, Snake, and Salmon rivers).

Does the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act restrict development on private lands within
designated river corridors?

No. Under the 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 Act includes provisions encouraging the protection of river values through state and local 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 landowners and/or through easements, exchanges, or the purchase of private lands.

How does Wild and Scenic designation affect public access to rivers for fishing, hunting, camping, and other forms of recreation?

Wild and Scenic designation neither limits the public from accessing public lands within designated river corridors nor opens private lands to public access. Designation has no effect on fishing and hunting, as those activities are regulated under state laws. Where hunting and fishing were allowed prior to designation, they may continue.

How does Wild and Scenic designation affect water rights?

Wild and Scenic designation has no effect on existing valid water rights or interstate water compacts. In prior appropriation states such as those in the West, any new Wild and Scenic water rights claimed under state law would have a priority date as of the river’s date of designation by Congress and would be considered junior to existing water rights.