Nearly 13,000 miles of river are protected in their free-flowing state under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. These rivers are recognized for their scenic, recreational, historic, or cultural values as well as being home to pristine and unique fish and wildlife habitat.
There is no other such system in the world.
It’s for this reason that graduate students Zhang Duan and Huang He from China and Florence Mdodi, a Fellow from the U.S. State Department’s Community Solutions Program in Tanzania, came to the United States to see how the Forest Service manages nearly 5,000 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers.
“We all piled into a van and traveled a little over 2,000 miles in a week,” said Alan Watson, Research Social Scientist at the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute.
Their whirlwind trip took them to the Flathead, Salmon-Challis, and Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, as well as the Rocky Mountain Research Station, along with other locations managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.
Watson said what seemed most fascinating to the Chinese and Tanzanian guests was the complexity of overlapping legislative designations and interagency management responsibility all working in relative harmony.
For instance, the two banks of the same river may be managed by different government agencies. Likewise, there may be differing reasons for the designation of adjacent segments of rivers, variation in approved uses, and multiple groups sharing management responsibility.
“There’s a flexibility and a diversity to our river system,” said Watson. “It’s not a simple prescription of what’s allowed and what’s not. It’s a conversation, and many of our designated rivers were made so through a long, cooperative, grass-roots process.”
And that, Watson said, is the inherent beauty of the management of the Wild and Scenic Rivers system. In many areas, both commercial and private use is occurring on the same river.
The visitors got an intensive and concentrated look at how the Forest Service and partner agencies manage these irreplaceable rivers and the management system that keeps them unspoiled and free-flowing. They plan to take the lessons learned here home to China and Tanzania to explore how these best practices can be implemented in ways that work for their countries and people.
Watson said that while everyone took something special away from the experience, Zhang Duan was so inspired that she’s considering putting her PhD ambitions aside in favor of championing a river system similar to the ones she saw on her trip. She hopes to be the one to manage such a system, should it come to fruition.