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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

River Renaissance: Keeping Washington's Rivers Wild & Scenic

Illabot Creek
Earlier this month, legislation to permanently protect 14.3 miles of Illabot Creek, a tributary to the Skagit River, passed the U.S. House of Representatives. If the legislation is approved by the U.S. Senate and signed by the President, the legislation would mark the first Wild and Scenic River designation in Washington since the Klickitat River was designated in 1986. Incredibly, for all of the Evergreen State’s wild rivers, only six are protected under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. Our neighbor to the south, Oregon, has approximately sixty rivers designated as Wild and Scenic, leaving Washington trailing far behind.

In 2008, Washington Wild teamed up with American Rivers and American Whitewater to stress the importance of the Wild and Scenic River Act among local wild land advocates in hopes to push for additional river designations statewide. More than thirty advocates attended an environmental workshop on the importance of the Wild and Scenic River Act to establish the seeds of a River Renaissance here in Washington State.

The first step to utilizing Wild and Scenic Rivers is understanding their significance. In order for a river to qualify as Wild and Scenic, it must be free-flowing and possess at least one Outstandingly Remarkable Value (ORV). The following excerpt is from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968:

“It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their environments, possess outstanding 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.”

The ORV must be unique, rare, or have an exemplary feature that is significant on a regional or national scale, which is ultimately protected through the Wild and Scenic designation. 

Forty-four years ago, the Wild and Scenic River Law was passed, allowing the designation of exemplary rivers as Wild and Scenic, thus preventing future environmental degradation. This act prohibits dam construction while retaining recreational benefits, such as swimming, rafting, and kayaking. Additionally, a ¼ mile buffer extends additional protection of river values depending on the level of classification (wild, scenic, or recreational) for that stretch of the river.

Wild and Scenic River designations can be a lengthy process, often taking years to become officially implemented. Like a Wilderness designation, it must pass both Houses of the U.S. Congress and be signed by the President.

Before a proposal can be officially introduced to legislation, conservation advocates must make significant amounts of proposal development in addition to stakeholder outreach.

Since our 2008 workshop, Washington Wild has been working within coalitions of other organizations to pursue additional Wild and Scenic River designations for some of Washington’s most iconic rivers. In addition to the Illabot Creek proposal, several other rivers are have proposals being developed or are awaiting approval:

  • In 2009, Washington Wild’s affiliation with the Alpine Lakes Working Group resulted in a proposal being introduced to legislation by Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Dave Reichert. This proposal would designate 40 miles of the Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie Rivers near Snoqualmie Pass as Wild and Scenic. Its approval would also designate an additional 22,000 acres for the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. If this legislation passes the Senate, it could come into effect by the end of 2012.

  • Last month, Congressman Norm Dicks and Senator Patty Murray introduced the Wild Olympics legislation. If passed, this legislation would designate 19 Wild and Scenic Rivers totaling 464 miles on the Olympic Peninsula. Additionally, this would designate 126,000 acres of new Wilderness on the Olympic National Forest. The Wild and Scenic designations in this bill alone would triple the total river mileage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers system in Washington. Washington Wild is a founding member of the Wild Olympics Campaign which has been working on this proposal since 2009.

  • Washington Wild is a member of the Volcano Country Rivers Campaign which is working to support a proposal to protect 12 rivers totaling 200 miles as Wild and Scenic in southwestern Washington near Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams. The public proposal has not yet been introduced into Congress.

  • Another campaign that Washington Wild is pushing for is Cascades Wild, a Puget headwaters Initiative, which seeks to protect as many as two dozen rivers, totaling as much as 300 river miles, which flow from the Cascades to Puget Sound. If this campaign succeeds, it would help protect the source of Puget Sound for future generations.
While Washington currently has remained at six Wild and Scenic Rivers since the 1980s, the “timber wars” days are now behind us, and this is the perfect time for us to push for additional Wild and Scenic River designations. If these campaigns are approved, Washington could designate an additional 55 rivers in the next few years, which will add 1,000 river miles statewide. There is still room for improvement for our river system throughout the state, since only 1% of Washington’s river miles have been designated as Wild and Scenic, but we believe that this is only the beginning for Washington’s river renaissance.

Nick Lannoye is Washington Wild’s conservation outreach and research intern. He is finishing up a degree in Environmental Resource Management at Western Washington University. A Seattle native, Nick enjoys playing tennis, hiking, and rooting for Seattle’s sports teams.

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