Get to know these amazing rivers: a celebration of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act

Cache La Poudre River (Colorado).

Credit: Laura Bojanowski, flickr.

On October 2, 1968, the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act was signed into law to protect exceptional American waterways for future generations. Nearly 50 years later, it has protected more than 200 rivers and remains as important as ever.

With the Wilderness Act and Land and Water Conservation Fund already under his belt, President Lyndon Johnson left no doubt that the 1960s would be remembered as a decade of bold conservation initiatives when he signed a bill allowing rivers to be “preserved in free-flowing condition” by act of Congress henceforth.

“An unspoiled river is a very rare thing in this Nation today,” President Johnson explained at the time. “Their flow and vitality have been harnessed by dams and too often they have been turned into open sewers by communities and by industries. It makes us all very fearful that all rivers will go this way unless somebody acts now to try to balance our river development.”

Balancing conservation with development

The signing was less celebrated than that of the two former bills, but it nonetheless has helped shape the American landscape in the decades since. In fact, the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act is often used in tandem with the Wilderness Act—together they make up the strongest dual protections that can be bestowed on American lands and waters. Due partly to the era of its passage, it remains obscure (later that same month, NASA launched the first manned Apollo mission; the era-defining Summer Olympics in Mexico kicked off; and air raids on North Vietnam were halted).

But the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act has protected more than 200 rivers in 39 states and helped to counterbalance decades of damming and development prior to its passage. Under its guidelines, parts of rivers may be protected as either “scenic,” “wild” or “recreational,” depending on how much development is nearby and how accessible they are to people. Since its inception, the law has sought to carefully guide construction at appropriate sections of rivers while permanently protecting some of their most treasured free-flowing waters.

As vital and prolific as the law has been, the waterways under its protection make up less than one-quarter of one percent of the nation’s rivers.

Take a look at a few of our protected wild & scenic rivers:

Salmon River (Idaho)

Credit: James Thomas, flickr.

The so-called "River of No Return" is the longest free-flowing river within one state in the continental U.S., zig-zagging some 425 miles through the heart of Idaho. More than one-third of the river’s total length was protected under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act in 1980. The Middle Fork, one of the Salmon River’s tributaries, is nearly all “wild” by designation. Both it and the larger waterway run through the famed Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

Flathead River (Montana)

Credit: David Restivo (NPS), flickr.

The 219-mile protected stretch of the Flathead River includes the North Fork, Middle Fork and South Fork, and runs through Glacier National Park and both the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Great Bear Wilderness. All these areas of the river, which originates in Canada, are popular for rafting, and for the views they offer of the stunning environs, which include rugged mountain landscape and wildlife like grizzly bears, wolves and elk.

Cache La Poudre River (Colorado)

Credit: Tom, flickr.

The mellifluous name of this river means "Hiding Place of Powder," purportedly because 1820s French fur trappers were forced to stash their gunpowder here during a huge snowstorm. Now, fittingly, the surrounding area is a popular site for hunting during the fall. A popular tourist draw for those setting out from Fort Collins, the Poudre, as locals call it, supports numerous fishing, whitewater rafting and kayaking businesses. This river is the only river in Colorado protected under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. It  runs along the edge of the Cache La Poudre Wilderness (the South Fork runs through that area) and through the Comanche Peak Wilderness and Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness. A total of 76 miles of the river are protected.

Skagit River (Washington)

Credit: sunrisesoup, flickr.

Nearly 160 miles of the Skagit River, which runs from the Cascade Mountains to Puget Sound, are protected under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. The Skagit is considered the most biologically important river draining to Puget Sound, and its various tributaries run through and around the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Rafting and wildlife-watching are among popular pastimes.

Koyukuk River-North Fork (Alaska)

Credit: timothy.actwell, flickr.

A little over 100 miles of the 425-mile Koyukuk River is protected under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act--the portion that runs through iconic Gates Of The Arctic National Park & Preserve and Gates of the Arctic Wilderness. On a map, this winding tributary of the Yukon River resembles some intricate organelle or unravelling thread, hugging the southern edge of the Koyukuk Wilderness as well. Gates of the Arctic Wilderness alone contains all or part of five other wild & scenic rivers, too.

Chattooga River (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia)

Credit: Warren Williams, flickr.

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of its protection under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act in 2014, the Chattooga River runs through the heart of Ellicott Rock Wilderness, the only federally-protected wilderness that lies in three states. The Chattooga is one of the most popular rivers for whitewater boating in the southeast, and among precious few free-flowing streams remaining in the region.

Snake River Headwaters (Wyoming)

Credit: Wild Rivers, flickr.

The headwaters of the Snake River originate in Wyoming’s Teton Wilderness, and the nearly-390-mile protected stretch passes through the Bridger-Teton National Forest, Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway and the National Elk Refuge. The so-called “Greater Yellowstone Area” that surrounds the river is sometimes cited as one of the world’s last intact temperate ecosystems making it an invaluable scientific and ecological resource.

Rogue River-Upper (Oregon)

Credit: S. Larsen, flickr.

For expert whitewater boaters only, the Upper Rogue River originates near celebrated Crater Lake National Park and runs to the boundary of Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. The watershed of this 40-mile stretch, which is also known for salmon and steelhead fishing, is protected by the Wild Rogue Wilderness.

Rio Grande River (New Mexico)

Credit: BLM New Mexico, flickr.

This 68-mile section of protected river runs through the eastern portion of the stunning Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, which was protected by President Obama in 2013. There, expert whitewater rafters can try their hand at negotiating the river’s canyon-buffeted turns, and fishing, camping, hiking and mountain biking are all popular in the surrounding area.