Long, short, winding or rushing, there's no doubt rivers are an integral part of the ecosystem. They serve as drainage channels for nearly three-quarters of Earth's surface, provide food and water for wildlife and create a crucial habitat for fish, plants and microorganisms. And rivers have been a lifeline for us humans too — their economic benefits make them prime real estate for centuries. They're used for everything from irrigating crops, fishing for food, transporting goods, creating hydroelectricity and of course having some fun.
But in the later part of the 19th century, industrialism swept through the United States, bringing mills, shops, and factories to the banks of fast-flowing rivers in order to harness the power of water for electricity. Big dams were built to impede the natural flow of a river and create a reservoir used to store water and create hydroelectricity. While dams do bring benefits, there are also costs; they trap sediment and logs that are needed for habitat downriver, erode downstream riverbanks and cause migratory fish born upstream to struggle to make the round trip to spawn.
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act
In order to help protect many U.S. rivers; while still allowing for some construction and dams, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act into law in 1968, creating the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The Act intends to strike a balance between economics and ecology. While the WSR Act doesn't prohibit development or give the government ownership of private land along the rivers, it does prohibit the government from providing federal support for "actions such as the construction of dams or other instream activities that would harm the river's free-flowing condition, water quality or outstanding resource values," according to the WPS website. When it comes to private land, it encourages voluntary stewardship by private owners in conjunction with local government.
Which Rivers Are Designated For Protection?
"To be eligible for designation, a river must be free-flowing, as defined by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and contain at least one 'outstandingly remarkable value' (ORV), i.e., scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar value," says Dan Haas of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in an email interview.
"These (ORV) are generally resources that are unique, rare or exemplary at a regional or national level. For example, an endangered fish, by the very fact it's endangered, would be an ORV. The White Cliffs along the Missouri River in Montana are a geological ORV. And the famous 'hanging gardens' on the Virgin River are a good example of a 'other similar value,'" says Haas.
But it's not necessarily the entire river that's protected: "Rarely does an entire river get designated, if for no other reason than rivers are long and usually cross multiple ownerships, including private ownership. Most designations are for just a portion of the river, and most will be in the upper reaches since that's where there's generally federal ownership," says Haas.
As of March 2019, 13,413 miles (21,586 kilometers) of 226 rivers are protected, spanning 41 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Despite this amazing progress, those numbers are still less than one-half of 1 percent of the nation's rivers.
Here are 7 enchanting wild and scenic designated rivers to check out:
1. Rogue River (Oregon)
2. Rio Grande (Texas, New Mexico)
Stretching from the Colorado Rockies to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, the Rio Grande is the second longest river in the U.S. But in recent years, some portions have dried up due to dams and irrigation. Luckily, the two designated WSR areas remain some of the most spectacular river segments in America.
3. Snake River (Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming)
The Columbia river's largest tributary, the Snake is an important source of irrigation water, a booming recreation industry and a habitat for salmon, who unfortunately, are now threatened with extinction due to upstream dams.
4. Missouri River (Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota)
The longest and perhaps one of the most historically significant rivers in the U.S., the Missouri River flows through seven states and is the watershed for roughly one-fourth of all the agricultural land in the nation.
5. Salmon River (Idaho)
While numerous states have rivers carrying the same name, the Salmon River in Idaho is one of the longest river systems contained entirely within a single U.S. state and carved one of the deepest gorges on the continent, exposing 1.5 billion-year-old rocks.
6. Delaware River (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
Flowing through five East Coast states and two of the five largest cities in the U.S. — New York City and Philadelphia — the Delaware River provides drinking water for 17 million people.
7. Illabot Creek (Washington)
Rivers may seem to get all the glory in the WSR, but creeks — known as tributaries — can be protected too. The Illabot is an important spawning and rearing habitat for numerous fish including the endangered Puget Sound Chinook, steelhead and bull trout.
For more than four decades, the WSR Act has opened up community collaboration across party lines to protect the outstanding values of our rivers. Haas notes that "for people that care about rivers, some of the special rivers in our landscape have been protected."
And just a reminder — if you do get out and enjoy the natural wonder of these rivers, be sure leave it better than you found it to help preserve their beauty for generations to come.