Editor's Note: This article was updated on March 11, 2021, to correct a spelling error.
Free-flowing rivers are the lifeblood of wild landscapes, providing habitat and food to myriad species both in the water and on the surrounding land. Rivers also help drive local economies: Boating, fishing, and other river activities account for nearly $56 billion in U.S. annual gross output, according to the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis—a figure that does not include significant additional consumer spending on lodging, food services, and so on. Further, these waterways are the source of drinking water for more than two-thirds of people in the United States.
And yet fewer than 2% of American rivers are federally designated as wild and scenic, a status that would help protect their ecologic, economic, and recreational value. Congress can increase that percentage, and the International Day of Action on Rivers, observed on March 14, is a good time to remind lawmakers why they should do so.
The second steepest river in the U.S., the Dungeness River flows some 30 miles from Mount Mystery in Olympic National Park to Dungeness Bay on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Anglers are drawn to this river’s steelhead, trout, and salmon, and the surrounding area is popular with hikers and mountain bikers. Parts of the Dungeness are included in Senator Patty Murray’s (D-WA) and Representative Derek Kilmer’s (D-WA) Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in February as part of the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act package. The measure would protect some 465 miles of rivers in Washington, and more than 126,000 acres of wilderness in Olympic National Forest.
In southwestern New Mexico, the Gila and San Francisco rivers support wildlife and provide surrounding communities with a variety of recreational opportunities. These rivers and their tributaries form one of the largest undammed watersheds in the Lower 48. For decades, a broad coalition that includes local landowners, small-business owners, and sportsmen has been working to protect more than 450 miles of the Gila and San Francisco and their tributaries as wild and scenic. Free-flowing rivers are vital to local economies. A 2020 Pew-commissioned report by the independent Southwick Associates found that water-related recreation along the Gila and San Francisco rivers supports nearly 4,000 jobs, provides $92.4 million in income, and generates roughly $427 million each year in spending on outdoor recreation.
Oregon’s Lookingglass Creek serves as critical habitat for Chinook salmon and bull trout, and is home to steelhead and redband trout as well. Primarily spring-fed, this creek boasts beautiful waterfalls below steep rocky canyons and, importantly, it drops the temperature of the Grande Ronde River below the confluence by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit, which greatly improves conditions for resident fish. Visitors to this largely roadless landscape might see bald and golden eagles, bears, cougars, beavers, lynx, and even wolverines along the creek’s banks. Lookingglass Creek is among the waterways proposed for protection as part of the River Democracy Act, introduced this year by Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden (D) and Jeff Merkley (D). The bill would add nearly 4,700 miles of Oregon rivers and streams to the national Wild and Scenic Rivers system and would be the largest expansion of that system in history.
This 115-mile river that flows between North Carolina and Tennessee serves up some of the best whitewater boating in the Eastern U.S., and laudable bass fishing. The Nolichucky is also a key source of irrigation for area farms. Local business owners, outfitters, conservationists, and whitewater enthusiasts in both states have been advocating for wild and scenic designation for a 7-mile section of the river—the Nolichucky River Gorge—which has more than a dozen whitewater rapids and is a popular spot to see bald eagles, osprey, and other raptors. At 3,000 feet, it is the deepest gorge in the southeastern U.S.
One of the largest undammed river systems in California, the South Fork Trinity watershed supports vulnerable populations of salmon and steelhead, and boasts dramatic scenery. The South Fork National Recreation Trail parallels the river’s rapids and pools through stands of pine, fir, and oak. Nearly 500 miles of water, including parts of the South Fork Trinity River and its tributaries, would be permanently protected by the Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act, sponsored by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), which was also included in the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act that recently passed the House. The bill would safeguard the South Fork’s watershed by establishing four new wilderness areas and expanding another. Designation of important streams and rivers such as the South Fork Trinity through the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act will protect them from dam construction and other threats. The legislation is supported by business owners, landowners, biologists, hunters, anglers, conservationists, and mountain bikers who want to restore watersheds and fisheries, support economic development, and enhance recreational opportunities.
No matter where we live, these public waterways belong to all of us. If there is a special river, stream, or creek you want to see remain free-flowing for generations to come, get involved, for example, by calling your members of Congress, writing letters to the editor of local publications, or signing petitions urging protection. By joining our actions and voices together, we can help conserve wild rivers for the people, wildlife, and ecosystems that depend on them.
Nicole Cordan oversees river corridor work for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.