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Wild and Scenic Rivers

[photo] view of Allegheny Wild and Scenic River, Pennsylvania

By the 1960s, concern over decades of damming, diverting, and developing the nation's river coalesced into Congressional action to prevent the inexorable loss of free-flowing rivers. The result was passage of legislation to preserve the beauty and free-flowing nature of some of our most precious waterways. On October 2, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which designated the first eight rivers into the National System and established a process for building a legacy of protected rivers. After careful consideration, rivers continue to be added to the National System; Congress and the people determine which of our remaining free-flowing rivers will be protected.

What Makes a River Wild and Scenic?

[photo] group rafting, North Umpqua Wild and Scenic River, Oregon    


Rivers, or sections of rivers, must be free-flowing and possess at least one "outstandingly remarkable" value, such as scenic, recreational, geologic, fish, wildlife, historic, cultural, or other features. Congress or the Secretary of the Interior may add rivers to the growing National System.

Within the National System, three classifications define the general character of designated rivers: wild, scenic or recreational. Classifications reflect levels of development and natural conditions along a stretch of river. These classifications are used to help develop management goals for the river.

What Does the Act Do?

The Act balances the demands for hydropower, flood control, and irrigation with the desire to protect some of this country's most outstanding rivers. The Act's underlying principles:

 underwater photo of a salmon
  • Keep designated rivers free-flowing
  • Protect outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values
  • Allow existing uses to continue where they do not conflict with river protection
  • Build partnerships among landowners, river users, tribal nations, and all levels of government

The Act may also:

  • Encourage basinwide management that crosses political boundaries
  • Promote public participation in developing goals for river protection
  • Offer technical assistance for river conservation
  • Improve understanding of river values and processes
  • Deepen awareness, acceptance, and appreciation of river conservation

How are Wild and Scenic Rivers Managed?

Where rivers flow through federal lands, the responsible agency takes the stewardship role. Four federal agencies manage congressionally designated rivers:

[photo] river rangers, Eleven Point Wild and Scenic River, Missouri
  • USDA Forest Service
  • USDI Bureau of Land Management
  • USDI National Park Service
  • USDI Fish and Wildlife Service

For state-administered rivers, designated by the Secretary of the Interior at a governor's request, a state agency manages the river, sometimes in concert with local governments.

Rivers, however, do not follow neat property lines and stewardship is a responsibility shared by numerous government agencies, tribal nations, private landowners and river users. The framers of the Act recognized this; Sections 11 and 12 encourage cooperative management among the many players in a watershed.

What are the Dimensions of the National System?

[photo] Black Creek Wild and Scenic River, Mississippi  

More than 160 rivers in 38 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico comprise the National System. More than 11,000 river miles are protected, just over one-quarter of one percent of the nation's rivers. There is great geographic diversity, from the remote rivers of Alaska, Idaho and Oregon to rivers threading through the rural countryside of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Ohio. So too there is great diversity in the type of these rivers, which range from cascading mountain streams to blackwater rivers in the Southeast. Each preserves a part of the American story and heritage.

To Find Out More

To find out more about these special places, we encourage you to visit the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System Web site, which is jointly managed by the four federal agencies responsible for administering wild and scenic rivers.


US Forest Service
Last modified October 15, 2016

[graphic] USDA logo, which links to the department's national site. [graphic] Forest Service logo, which links to the agency's national site. [graphic] A link to the US Forest Service home page.