50 Yr Anniversary of Wild & Scenic River Act - George Garnett, USFS

American River

There’s nothing like being on a river and, it’s just human nature to seek out bodies of water.  A map of the world's population will show the majority of humankind lives near water. We vacation at beaches, find pleasure fishing on lakes and live along coastlines up and down rivers and streams. Nothing makes young ones happier than a chance to splash through puddles of water.

Throughout the United States, certain bodies of water contained in rivers, have received special protections. Nearly 5,000 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers cross 21 states and 56 national forests. 2018 is the 50 year anniversary of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. President Johnson signed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act October 2, 1968. This Acts established systems of rivers which have grown and occupy a special place on the lands, and in the hearts and culture of America. So, what is a Wild and Scenic River?

Wild and Scenic rivers are primarily designated by Congress, meeting certain conditions. There are three classifications within this Act: wild, scenic, or recreational.  These classifications are either identified by Congress when a river is designated or are later classified by the administering agency (Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, etc.). These classifications are not based on a river’s particular values or uses, but instead reflect the level of development within the designated river corridor at the date of designation.  Future management of federal lands within these river corridors must be consistent with the classification/level of development at the date of designation. The three classifications are as follows:

Wild River Areas – Rivers or sections of rivers free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive and waters unpolluted. These represent vestiges of primitive America.

Scenic River Areas – Rivers or sections of rivers free of impoundments, with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive and shorelines largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads.

Recreational River Areas – Rivers or sections of rivers readily accessible by road or railroad, that may have some development along their shorelines, and that may   have undergone some impoundment or diversion in the past.

Regardless of the classification, rivers are managed with the goal of protecting and enhancing river values: free-flowing condition, water quality, and identified “outstandingly remarkable values.”

In the Tahoe National Forest, the North Fork of the American River has been designated as a free-flowing Wild River with no dams and is subject to the protections of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The North Fork of the American River carries snow melt from the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, including the back side of the Sugar Bowl and Squaw Valley Ski areas, over towering waterfalls and through spectacular granite gorges.  

Three main trails off Foresthill Road, near Auburn, CA, provide access to the North Fork of the American river.  The easiest trail is called Mumford Bar Trail.

The Mumford Trail has a small free campground at the trailhead with hitching posts for horses and a vault toilet. Along the trail is a historic cabin, named the Mumford Cabin, which was built in 1868 and housed gold miners up until 1970.

The second trail, Beacroft, is overgrown and not recommended. The third trail is called Sailor Flat Trail. This is the steepest trail leading to the river from Foresthill road and is approximately 3.25 miles down. This trail has not been cleared since 2015.

With the increase in popularity of whitewater kayaking, the Wild and Scenic portion of the American River is also an exhilarating goal for experienced Class V boaters.

Besides being one of the most important ecosystems on the planet, rivers are fascinating. People travel miles to experience the wildness of a free-flowing rivers. “There’s just something about the rush of clean free-flowing water that gives people a feeling of mental clarity which adds value to our lives,” says Deputy Forest Supervisor, Teresa Benson at the Tahoe National Forest.  

There’s nothing like being near water, especially if that water is flowing through a Wild and Scenic River.

(Photo credit: Matthew Brownlee, U.S. Forest Service)