Bill Seeks to Protect Miles of Northwest California Rivers

Safeguards would benefit salmon fisheries, boost outdoor recreation and regional economy

Navigate to:

Bill Seeks to Protect Miles of Northwest California Rivers
Trinity River
The cold, clear Trinity River in Northern California is a world-famous fly-fishing destination.
Bob Wick BLM

Northwest California’s public forests, grasslands, and rivers comprise an immense but vulnerable landscape that provides habitat for fish and wildlife and helps fuel the state’s $92 billion recreation economy. In some areas, decades of clear-cut logging have disrupted the forest’s natural ability to control erosion, muddied rivers and streams, and decreased reproduction rates for some fish populations. It has also made the landscape vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire, threatening nearby communities.

Fortunately, some federal lawmakers recognize the value of intact public lands and waters and are moving to protect parts of northwest California’s mother lode, including prime salmon and steelhead habitat. A bill, authored by Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA) and passed by the House of Representatives on Feb. 12, would designate 379 miles of the region’s rivers as wild and scenic, require comprehensive management plans for an additional 101 miles of existing wild and scenic rivers, and safeguard nearly 262,000 acres of surrounding public lands as wilderness. The measure was folded into a larger California public lands and rivers package—the Protecting Unique and Beautiful Landscapes by Investing in California Lands Act (S. 3288), also known as the PUBLIC Lands Act—that was introduced in the Senate by Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) on the same day it passed the House. 

The act would protect segments of the Trinity, Eel, Mad, and Mattole rivers, among other waterways. The South Fork Trinity River watershed, one of the largest undammed river systems in California, supports highly vulnerable populations of salmon and steelhead and boasts dramatic scenery. The South Fork National Recreation Trail parallels the river—and its many rapids and pools—as it carves through stands of pine, fir, and oak. The bill also protects the South Fork’s highly erosive watershed by establishing three new wilderness areas and expanding another.

Trinity River
The clear water along this segment of the South Fork Trinity River, a designated Wild and Scenic waterway, provides excellent spawning grounds for salmon and steelhead.
Jeff Morris

Eltapom Creek has been called the “gem” of the South Fork Trinity River watershed because of its abundant holding pools, dense riparian corridor, and silt-free gravel beds that, for a variety of reasons, are excellent for spawning. Also, due to heavy tree cover, the creek runs colder than most other streams in the watershed and is thus a refuge for endangered coho salmon and high densities of winter steelhead, as well as spring Chinook salmon—all of which prefer those cooler temperatures. Many other South Fork tributaries that provide crucial spawning habitat and thermal refuges for at-risk salmonids are also protected as wild and scenic in this proposal.

The legislation would also protect the Eel River, which empties into the Pacific 13 miles south of Eureka, California, and is home to three species—Chinook salmon, coho salmon, and steelhead—that have seen dramatic declines in population and are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The PUBLIC Lands Act would protect portions of the North Fork Eel River that are essential for those species’ recovery. The river canyon supports diverse habitat for several sensitive, threatened, or endangered species, including the peregrine falcon. The river provides class II-V whitewater boating opportunities and flows through the North Fork Wilderness—one of the most remote wild areas in the region.

Female Northern California Coast steelhead swim as far as 150 miles upstream to build gravel nests and lay their eggs. The young fry stay in the stream for several years before heading out to sea, where they live for one to four years before returning to spawn.
Will Boucher/California Sea Grant

The South Fork Eel River, which runs through Mendocino and Humboldt counties, is the spawning ground of the largest concentration of naturally reproducing anadromous salmon and steelhead in the region. (Anadromous fish are those that hatch in fresh water, mature in the ocean, and return to their native streams to spawn.) The legislation requires that the U.S. Department of the Interior develop a comprehensive management plan to protect segments of the river and key tributaries.

The PUBLIC Lands Act also would encourage management strategies, such as thinning of roadside vegetation, that would reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires.

Other key provisions include establishment of a special management area where the U.S. Forest Service would take steps to enhance recreational experiences such as hunting, fishing, and mountain biking while conserving the area’s wildlife and natural resources. The bill also earmarks more than 51,000 acres as potential wilderness—that is, land that could automatically gain wilderness designation after a set period of time if certain conditions are met—and calls for a study of the feasibility of a Bigfoot National Recreation Trail to showcase the area’s botanical and biological diversity.

The Eel River flows 200 miles through California's third largest watershed, starting in Lake County and running through Mendocino, Trinity, and Humboldt counties before reaching the ocean.
Bob Wick BLM

Northwest California’s natural systems are interdependent: Healthy forests promote clean rivers, and together they provide habitat for a diverse population of plants and animals. When these systems thrive, so do nearby communities—on many levels, including health, public safety, and economic well-being. The Pew Charitable Trusts encourages Congress to pass the PUBLIC Lands Act to safeguard these special places, and their benefits, for all Americans.

John Gilroy directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands program.

Spotlight on Mental Health

Composite image of modern city network communication concept

Learn the Basics of Broadband from Our Limited Series

Sign up for our four-week email course on Broadband Basics

Quick View

How does broadband internet reach our homes, phones, and tablets? What kind of infrastructure connects us all together? What are the major barriers to broadband access for American communities?

Pills illustration
Pills illustration

What Is Antibiotic Resistance—and How Can We Fight It?

Sign up for our four-week email series The Race Against Resistance.

Quick View

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs,” are a major threat to modern medicine. But how does resistance work, and what can we do to slow the spread? Read personal stories, expert accounts, and more for the answers to those questions in our four-week email series: Slowing Superbugs.

Explore Pew’s new and improved
Fiscal 50 interactive

Your state's stats are more accessible than ever with our new and improved Fiscal 50 interactive:

  • Maps, trends, and customizable charts
  • 50-state rankings
  • Analysis of what it all means
  • Shareable graphics and downloadable data
  • Proven fiscal policy strategies


Welcome to the new Fiscal 50

Key changes include:

  • State pages that help you keep track of trends in your home state and provide national and regional context.
  • Interactive indicator pages with highly customizable and shareable data visualizations.
  • A Budget Threads feature that offers Pew’s read on the latest state fiscal news.

Learn more about the new and improved Fiscal 50.