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Wild and Scenic Rivers Act Turns 50!

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, a law that has preserved 12,754 miles of 209 different rivers in 40 states (including Puerto Rico)! This act was created by congress and signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in 1968. While Teddy Roosevelt was heralded as one of our country’s most famous conservationists, surprisingly Lyndon Johnson has quite the track record as well, signing more than 300 conservation measures into law in his term. This iconic law sought to preserve certain rivers with, “outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.”

Now there are three classifications of rivers under this act each with different criteria that define them. The first classification is wild (or natural) river areas, which are free of impairments typically only accessible by trail whose watersheds/shorelines are primitive with no pollution. The second classification is scenic river areas, which are rivers (or sections of rivers) free of impoundments (i.e. not confined by reservoirs or other man-made structures) with shorelines/watersheds that are primarily undeveloped but accessible by road. The final classification is recreational river areas, which are rivers (or sections of rivers) easily accessible by road or railway that may have had developments, impoundments, or diversions in the past. Congress or the Secretary of Interior (at both the state and federal level) utilize these three classifications and standards to determine which rivers deserve classification, and of those deserving rivers, which class they fall under.

We collectively benefit from this act as there are rivers in Humboldt County that have been classified and protected by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System act, including both the Klamath and Eel rivers. Governor Jerry Brown mandated that his Secretary of Interior Cecil Andrus designate sections of both the Klamath and Eel rivers as wild, scenic, and recreational in 1981. Currently, 398 miles of the Eel river are classified as wild (97 miles), scenic (28 miles), and recreational (273 miles) while the Klamath river has 286 miles of wild (11.7 miles), scenic (23.5 miles), and recreational (250.8 miles) respectively. This ensures that no more dams can be created within the span of those designated areas as, “it prohibits 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”, but unfortunately, it does nothing to address dams currently on these rivers. This act is important for the conservation and preservation of endemic fish species such as coho and Chinook salmon as well as steelhead trout, as these animals are incredibly important biologically, culturally, and recreationally.

However, the agenda of our current administration could very likely put these river systems at risk. Loosening environmental standards and regulations has become commonplace. For example, removal of Obama era regulations on hydraulic fracturing and allowing offshore oil surveying and drilling in the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans threaten groundwater and ocean systems across the country. The 2016 moratorium on all new coal leases on federal land was also rolled back, allowing for the development of new coal power plants (because everyone knows coal is the energy of the future right?). These power plants use massive amounts of water, and certain plants that utilize a “once through” method that sucks up water, heats it up, and discharges it back into the same system it was taken from. This water returns at higher temperatures, creating thermal pollution (i.e. it makes the water warmer, surprise surprise), which can reduce fertility in fish as well as increase their heart rates. So while regulations surrounding our river systems haven’t been directly threatened yet, it seems the current administration is creating policies to maximize the utilization of our natural resources at the expense of loosening environmental regulations. These loose regulations threaten these areas and ecosystems, so it is up to us to contact our local and state representatives and show our support for laws like the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

This article was written by Kieran Hanson-Schiffgens


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