Dozens of Oregon Rivers Deserve Better Protection—Here Are 10

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Dozens of Oregon Rivers Deserve Better Protection—Here Are 10
This stretch of Oregon’s Klamath River is protected as wild and scenic. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) is seeking recommendations for other rivers that might merit permanent protection.
Bob Wick/BLM

This article was updated Jan. 17, 2020 to clarify the location of the Siletz River.

Oregon boasts over 110,000 miles of rivers and streams—waterways that contribute greatly to the health and well-being of people, their communities, and a diverse array of wildlife and habitats. Nevertheless, only 2 percent of the state’s rivers are protected under the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which Congress passed to safeguard clean, free-flowing rivers, streams, creeks, and tributaries from development and pollution.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden (D) is hoping to increase that percentage by inviting the public to nominate waterways for wild and scenic designation. Here are 10 of the many Oregon rivers worthy of protection:    

1. West Fork Illinois River

Zachary Collier

The 56-mile-long Illinois River flows through the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in southwestern Oregon, where it meets the Rogue River.  The West Fork runs through a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) area of critical environmental concern and the U.S. Forest Service’s Oregon Mountain Botanical Area and is one of the state’s most ecologically valuable waterways. The river corridor supports numerous rare plant species, including Howell’s mariposa lily, the Oregon willow herb, the Waldo gentian, and the western bog violet.

2. North Fork Smith River

Jay Fleming

The North Fork Smith River’s 34 miles lie entirely within the Siuslaw National Forest along the central Oregon coast.  The river is prized by anglers for its cutthroat (pictured above) and steelhead trout and provides refugia for salmon. The marbled murrelet, a small seabird, nests in the old-growth trees lining the riverbanks. 

3. Chetco River

Northwest Rafting Company

The Chetco River draws its name from the native peoples who lived near the river 1,000 to 3,000 years ago. Today, the 14,000 residents of the nearby towns of Brookings and Harbor rely on the exceptionally clear and clean Chetco for their drinking water. The 56-mile-long river is rich in species diversity, supporting large populations of salmon and trout and the northernmost grove of redwood trees in the United States.

4. Nestucca River

Paul Colangelo/ iLCP

The 57-mile Nestucca River cuts through the popular Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge, home to bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, and Canada geese (pictured above). The river supports numerous fish species, including chinook and coho salmon, coastal cutthroat trout, and steelhead trout and is a prime drinking water source for the city of McMinnville. The Nestucca also supports rare ecosystems—from nearshore ocean habitat to the marshlike estuary to high coastal mountain forests.  

5. North Fork of the Siletz River

Thomas O’Keefe/American Whitewater

In its brief five miles before it flows into the main Siletz River on the Oregon coast, the North Fork boasts rapids that attract whitewater kayakers from near and far. Its watershed contains the 51-acre Valley of the Giants, a BLM-designated outstanding natural area with ancient Douglas fir and western hemlock trees, many more than 400 years old and over 200 feet tall. The North Fork is home to spring chinook salmon, cutthroat trout, Pacific lamprey, and the only known native run of summer steelhead on the northern Oregon coast.

6. Santiam River

Bob Wick/BLM

The Santiam River is formed where its north and south forks (92 and 69 miles long, respectively) meet in western Oregon and then runs 12 miles before feeding into the Willamette River. Through its tributaries, the Santiam drains a significant portion of the Cascade Mountains and is a major source of clean drinking water for Salem, the state capital.

7. South Fork Coquille River 

Wesley Robinson

At 1,059 square miles, the Coquille watershed is the third-largest river system to originate in Oregon’s Coast Range. The approximately 63-mile South Fork supports diverse habitat types, is a productive salmon and steelhead spawning stream, and is home to wild cutthroat and rainbow trout.

8. Grande Ronde River

Michael Campbell and Aaron Haselby/BLM

The Grande Ronde begins in the evergreen forests of eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains before dropping through steep basalt canyons to open terrain that is home to the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and other tribes for time immemorial. The river corridor supports many species, including herons, raptors, river otters, minks, black bears, and mountain lions and feeds a sensitive wintering area for bald eagles, bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, and whitetail deer. Much of the corridor is a BLM-designated area of critical environmental concern.

9. Snake River

Flickr user Michael B.

The Snake, the nation’s ninth-longest river, once produced nearly half the spring chinook salmon returning to the Columbia River basin. Originating in Wyoming’s Teton Mountains and crossing Idaho, the Snake provides outdoor recreation opportunities and drinking and irrigation water for communities in three states.  In Oregon, the river flows through the Hells Canyon (above), America’s deepest river gorge.

10. South Umpqua River

Rising in the high Cascade Mountains and traveling through a remote canyon in the Umpqua National Forest, the approximately 115-mile South Umpqua is designated as a key watershed under the Northwest Forest Plan and is home to numerous fish species. It supports one of the last remaining wild runs of coastal spring chinook salmon in Oregon as well as coho salmon, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.  The South Umpqua River also draws rafters, kayakers, and others seeking outdoor recreation. 

From sustaining diverse flora and fauna to providing drinking water and economic opportunity across the state, these Oregon rivers deserve conservation. The Pew Charitable Trusts will recommend rivers to Senator Wyden for protection as wild and scenic, and we invite you to write to the senator and propose rivers and tributaries that you feel are worthy of designation.

Nicole Cordan is a director with Pew’s U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project. 

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