Wild And Scenic Rivers Act

Wallowa Wild river, Oregon. Courtesy of BLM.

NRS | Federal Lands | Recreation and Preservation | Creation of the NPS

Hidden Falls near Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park. Courtesy of NPS.Congress enacted the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA) in 1968, declaring it the “policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments, possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.” 16 U.S.C. § 1271. As originally enacted, the WSRA named specific rivers or segments of rivers for inclusion in the Wild and Scenic River System (“WSRS”). Id. § 1274(a)(1)-(a)(8). The WSRA also sets forth a procedure for future designations to the WSRS. Id. § 1273(a). WSRS components are administered by the Secretary of the Interior or, if the river falls within a national forest, the Secretary of Agriculture. Id. § 1281(c)-(d). ,p.The WSRA framework designates rivers based on specific “outstandingly remarkable values” (ORVs) which both justify the initial designation of a river as a WSRS component, Id. §1271, and provide the benchmark for evaluating a proposed project affecting a designated river. While, under the WSRA, protecting and enhancing the designated ORVs is paramount, this goal may be compatible with other uses:

[e]ach component of the [WSRS] shall be administered in such manner as to protect and enhance [those ORVs that] caused it to be included in[the WSRS] without, insofar as is consistent therewith, limiting other uses that do not substantially interfere with public use and enjoyment of these values[, with] primary emphasis ... given to protecting its esthetic, scenic, historic, archeologic, and scientific features.

Id. § 1281(a). The WSRA further recognizes that “[m]anagement plans for any such component may establish varying degrees of intensity for its protection and development, based on the special attributes of the area.” Id. To the extent that the WSRA conflicts with the Wilderness Act, id. § 1131-1136, or statutes administering the national park system and national wildlife system, the WSRA instructs that “the more restrictive provisions shall apply.” Id. § 1281(b)-(c). The WSRA requires the administering agency to “take such action respecting management policies, regulations, contracts, [and] plans ... as may be necessary to protect such rivers in accordance with” the WSRA, and “cooperate with the ... Environmental Protection Agency and with the appropriate State water pollution control agencies for the purpose of eliminating or diminishing the pollution of waters of the river.” Id. § 1283(a), (c).

Merced River, Yosemite National Park. Courtesy of NPS.Once a river is designated as part of the WSRS, the following statutory timetable applies: (1) within one year, the administering agency is required to “establish detailed boundaries” for the river and classify it (generally or by its various segments) as “wild,” “scenic,” or “recreational,” Id. §§ 1274(b); 1273(b); and (2) within three full fiscal years, the administering agency must prepare a comprehensive management plan (“CMP”) “to provide for the protection of the river values,” id. § 1274(d)(1). “The [CMP] shall address resource protection, development of lands and facilities, user capacities, and other management practices necessary or desirable to achieve the [WSRA's] purposes.” Id.

Challenges brought under WSRA generally involve allegations that the National Park Service failed to prepare an appropriate comprehensive management plan once a river has been designated for inclusion in the Wild and Scenic River System. See Friends of Yosemite Valley v. Norton, 348 F.3d 789 (9th Cir. 2003); Friends of Yosemite Valley v. Kempthorne, 520 F.3d 1024 (9th Cir. 2008).


Updated May 12, 2015

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