Looking at a map of Oregon, it’s hard to miss the intertwining rivers, streams, wetlands, and lakes—a natural network that delivers clean drinking water to Beaver State communities, supports a thriving outdoor recreation economy, and provides vital habitat for wildlife.
Yet, only 2% of the state’s 110,000 miles of rivers are protected under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden (D) is trying to change that with the River Democracy Act of 2021, which he introduced on Feb. 3 and which would designate approximately 4,700 miles of waterways as wild and scenic, giving Oregon the most wild and scenic river miles in the U.S.
These waterways include places such as the North Fork of the Smith, prized by anglers for its cutthroat and steelhead trout; the Illinois River, which flows through the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in southwestern Oregon and is home to rare plants that are found nowhere else; Looking Glass Creek, a tributary to the Grande Ronde River in the state’s northeastern corner and home to bears, lynx, and wolverines; and the Nestucca River, which cuts through the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge and is home to bald eagles and Canada geese.
The legislation would benefit Oregonians, the state economy, and the state’s natural systems, protecting these special resources for generations to come.
Even before the pandemic, spending on outdoor recreation and in the communities centered around it formed the backbone of the state’s economy, supporting 88,330 jobs and generating $7.2 billion in economic value. This includes buying gear, passes, and licenses for a wide variety of pursuits, from hunting, fishing, canoeing, and camping to skiing, kayaking, and rafting.
The bill would also help Oregon ranchers and farmers who need clean water to irrigate their crops and sustain their livestock and benefit families with traditions of fishing for salmon and steelhead. Oregonians want the peace of mind that they and their children will always have access to their favorite stream.
And all Oregonians, from the remote Owyhee Canyonlands to Portland and from Medford to the rural community of Troy, need clean drinking water. The 14,000 residents of the coastal towns of Brookings and Harbor, for example, rely on the exceptionally clear and clean Chetco River for their drinking water, and the Santiam River is a major source of clean drinking water for Salem, the state capital.
By passing the River Democracy Act of 2021, Congress can help build a healthy, sustainable future for Oregon. While crafting the legislation, Sen. Wyden held public comment sessions and town halls to solicit feedback throughout the state, resulting in over 15,000 nominations for river protection. The bill now includes thousands of miles of those recommendations—a true community-driven proposal. Pew encourages Congress to pass this legislation to help Oregon’s local and state economies and the myriad wildlife and flora that need healthy ecosystems to thrive.
Nicole Cordan oversees river corridor work for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.