Fifty Years Of Saving Rivers: National Wild & Scenic RIvers Act

The Wild and Scenic Trinity River. Photo: Sam Camp.
The Wild and Scenic Trinity River. Photo: Sam Camp.

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2018. Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Act on October 2, 1968, creating the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System. The law was specifically intended to balance the nation’s existing policy of building dams on rivers to develop their water supply, flood control, and hydroelectric potential, with a new policy to ensure that some rivers with outstanding values are protected for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. One of the first six rivers protected by the 1968 law was the Middle Fork Feather River in California. Today, this 77-mile river remains one of the wildest waterways in the state.

This 50-year-old law is the nation’s primary river conservation tool. New dams and diversions are prohibited on protected rivers. It requires that federal agencies manage federal public lands along the rivers to protect their free-flowing character and specific outstanding recreation, scenic, fish, wildlife, geological, cultural/historical, and other values. This may be accomplished through the development of a comprehensive river management plan three years after designation. Designated rivers are also managed as wild, scenic, or recreational, based on the level of existing development at time of designation.

The National System protects 12,734 miles (or less than one percent) of the 3.6 million miles of rivers and streams nationwide. In California, there are about 2,021 miles of California rivers and streams protected in the National System, or about two percent of the 94,000 miles of rivers and streams in the state. About 1,274 miles of California rivers enjoy overlapping federal and state protection. There are another 125 miles of rivers in California that are only protected by the State.

Both the federal and state Wild and Scenic River Systems were established in reaction to our nation’s aggressive policy of dam development. Although dams provide many benefits, they also drown river canyons and habitat, modify downstream flows, block fish migration, and degrade water quality. There are an estimated 84,000 dams in the United States, impounding 600,000 miles of rivers. California alone has more than 1,400 dams on its rivers and streams. The Wild and Scenic River System ensures that at least some free-flowing rivers and streams with outstanding and extraordinary values are protected for present and future generations.

Proposed new water supply and hydroelectric dams prompted protection efforts for various rivers. Federal designation of the Middle Fork Feather, Tuolumne, and Merced Rivers blocked destructive dam projects. Alarmed by the impact of dams constructed on the upper Trinity and Eel Rivers on salmon and steelhead populations, the California Legislature established the state wild and scenic rivers system in 1972 to block huge new water supply dams on the remaining undammed segments of the Klamath, Trinity, and Eel Rivers. In 1981, Governor Jerry Brown and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus used a provision of the federal act that allows state rivers to be added to the federal system without Congressional approval to add segments of the Smith, Klamath, Trinity, and Eel Rivers to the federal system. This killed the long-proposed Dos Rios dam project on the Eel River, which would have diverted much of the river to the Central Valley for agricultural use.

Rivers are primarily protected in the national system through legislation passed by Congress. Congress may direct federal agencies to study and make recommendations as to whether specific rivers should be added to the system. The Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other federal land management agencies are also required to assess the Wild and Scenic River potential of streams flowing through public lands as part of the agency’s land and resource planning process. Federal agencies have identified more than 4,200 miles of rivers and streams eligible for federal protection through
this process.

National Wild and Scenic Rivers in California include large rivers like the Klamath in northwestern California and tiny seasonal streams, such as Bautista Creek in southern California. Many of California’s rivers and streams in the federal and state system were protected in direct response to proposals to build river-destroying dams. Others were protected simply because they possessed unique natural and cultural resources that deserved special recognition and protective management. Many rivers and streams have been designated to protect threatened and endangered salmon, steelhead, and other native fish. Others were designated for their outstanding whitewater recreation opportunities. Some have been protected because of their outstanding prehistoric and Native American cultural values. The protected rivers in California represent a diverse range of large and small waterways possessing a wide range of outstanding natural and cultural values.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the California Wilderness Coalition (CalWild) has initiated the Wild Rivers Project, with the goal of growing the federal and state wild and scenic river systems in California to 6,000 miles by the 60th anniversary of the Act. CalWild and its allies have been involved in the protection of virtually every National Wild and Scenic River in California since 1984.

Many of the combined wild river and wilderness bills protecting public lands in California were developed and lobbied for by CalWild and our local, regional, and national allies. These ongoing coalition efforts are responsible for at least three bills currently pending before Congress to protect 227 miles of Wild & Scenic Rivers and 649,000 acres of wilderness in the California Desert, San Gabriel Mountains, and the Central Coast. In addition, we anticipate that legislation will soon be introduced to protect additional wilderness and 480 miles of wild and scenic rivers in
northwestern California.

To learn more about CalWild’s Wild Rivers Project, visit or contact Steve Evans at