Legislation currently in the United States Senate seeks to protect large portions of famed rivers in Oregon, Montana, and several other states. The Wild and Scenic River designation is a powerful tool to protect and preserve “certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations,” as established by Congress in 1968. These Congressional designations have preserved some of the most beautiful rivers throughout the country, including portions of the Middle Fork of the Clearwater (ID), Salmon (ID), Rogue (OR), Flathead (MT), Farmington (CT), and many more. The two primary pieces of Wild and Scenic River legislation are the River Democracy Act and the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act, but others are also flowing through the Senate.

As midterm elections ramp up and the window starts closing on core legislating activities, advocates are hoping one last push might move the needle on these bills. Or conversely, the bipartisan support for conservation and outdoor recreation may score political points at home.

The River Democracy Act of 2021

Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley introduced the River Democracy Act early last year, and the bill received a hearing last June. However, the bill has been dammed up since. Hundreds of local business, from breweries to tackle shops, to raft manufactures are supporting this legislation, because it is good policy and good for Oregon. The bill would designate nearly 4,700 miles of Oregon’s rivers as “Wild and Scenic,” tripling the amount of protected rivers in the state.

“The River Democracy Act will help protect important habitat for salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest. From small streams used for spawning and rearing to our larger rivers that provide amazing fishing opportunities, this legislation will ensure salmon and steelhead, and the ecosystem that relies on them, will persist for generations to come,” said Kirk Blaine Southern Oregon Regional Coordinator at the Native Fish Society.

Wyden developed the list of rivers receiving protections through an extensive public process made up of three town halls and 15,000 nominations from 2,500 Oregonians.

“Oregonians made it loud and clear: they cherish Oregon’s rivers and want them protected for generations to come,” said Oregon Senator Ron Wyden. “More protected rivers and clear management objectives means more jobs, improved wildfire resiliency and a guarantee for the livability of Oregon.”

If signed into law, this bill would provide Wild and Scenic River designations for some premier rivers (and great trout, steelhead, and salmon habitat), including tributaries of the Deschutes, Clackamas, Hood, John Day, and many more. In addition to protecting rivers, this bill does a lot for defending against increasing and intensifying wildfires. David Moryc from American Rivers writes, “The River Democracy Act provides for stronger wildfire risk assessment and planning for homes and businesses near Wild and Scenic rivers, greater inter-agency coordination in fighting wildfire including with Native American Tribes, and more federal resources to repair wildfire damage to infrastructure, drinking water quality, and watersheds.”

Montana Headwaters Legacy Act

Senator Jon Tester reintroduced the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act last June 2021, which would protect nearly 380 river miles in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Covered rivers include the Smith (which just had a big legal victory), Gallatin, the Madison, and many more creeks and rivers. Hundreds of Montana businesses and groups support this legislation. “We’re at the point in Montana where the threats to our rivers are mounting far faster than we’re saving them,” said Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies Director at American Rivers. “The Montana Headwaters Legacy Act is our chance to make up some ground in a hurry. If we can get it passed and signed into law this year, it would double the number of protected river miles in Montana in one bold action.” Learn more about the bill and how to help by checking out Montanas for Healthy Rivers.

“Our outdoor heritage is not only central to our identity as Montanans, but a staple in our growing economy,” said Montana Senator Jon Tester. “This legislation, built from the ground up and with the backing of a diverse coalition of stakeholders, will ensure that some of our most pristine rivers will be enjoyed by the next generations of young Montanans, and untouched by special interests for years to come.”

More Wild and Scenic River Bills

In recent years, Congress is leaning more on large packages of bills and omnibus bills to pass legislation. So, for Wild and Scenic River legislation that might slow things down, because most of these bills are hyper-local. However, if a package forms for a group of states, benefiting many Senators, the possibility of passing a package of Wild and Scenic River bills increases. Let’s hope we get there.

Cover picture is from the Fall River, credit to Sophia Kaelke.

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