The River Democracy Act of 2021 (S.192)
Wild & Scenic Rivers
The River Democracy Act of 2021 (S.192), introduced to the 117th Congress by Senator Wyden, designates specified river segments, primarily in Oregon, as components of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. In Oregon, there are about 111,000 miles of rivers, streams, and creeks, but only 2 percent of those bodies of water have been designated as Wild and Scenic. The River Democracy Act of 2021 could increase the protected mileage by more than two-fold, a decision that would safeguard vital watersheds for local communities, fish, and wildlife.
The fascinating aspect of this bill’s development was that Senator Wyden asked Oregonians to nominate rivers and streams that they considered should be designated as Wild and Scenic. With more than 15,000 nominations, Senator Wyden and his team were more than prepared to formulate this unique, grassroots bill that Oregonians themselves helped shape.
Why Wild and Scenic?
The Wild and Scenic designation comes from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. According to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, this designation aims to “preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations”. This protection prohibits not only the construction of dams on designated bodies of water, but also extractive uses such as mining. On public lands, a mile-wide corridor is established along the banks of such designated bodies so that the river’s “outstandingly remarkable values” are protected and prioritized. These values include (but may not be limited to) fish and other wildlife, recreation, cultural and historic resources, scenery, and geology.
Benefits of Wild and Scenic Rivers
We are all connected to wild rivers, and we all directly benefit when they are healthy and free-flowing. Millions of Oregonians depend on clean drinking water spruced from existing or proposed Wild and Scenic rivers. Healthy river ecosystems act as a natural filtration system that helps to remove pollution. This causes the water entering treatment plants to be much cleaner naturally and therefore requiring less treatment. Local communities also benefit from the conservation and restoration of Wild and Scenic rivers, which leads to more recreation opportunities. This can significantly stimulate local rural economies.
Public Management of Public Rivers
Once Congress designates a particular river as Wild and Scenic, public land managers—such as the US Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management—begin planning how to protect and enhance the river’s outstandingly remarkable values. What’s more, local community members can participate in this planning.
Wild and Scenic rivers that flow through private land do not impact private property rights or land use. Existing water rights for irrigation are unchanged by this designation, and uses like livestock grazing can continue as long as they do not negatively impact the river’s recognized values.