River Democracy Act more about land than water
Press Editorial December 16, 2022
The new and improved River Democracy
Act was introduced last week by Oregon’s two U.S. senators,
and it’s a lot like the original.
It still fails to explain the need for
the bill and redefines the 1968 Wild and Scenic River Act,
converting it from a law aimed a protecting free-flowing
rivers into a land management law.
Currently, there are 226 wild and
scenic rivers in the entire U.S. The new River Democracy Act
would add 100 bodies of water to that list. We use that term
because most of them are not rivers.
The sponsors claim the bill will
expand recreation access, boost local economies, protect
drinking water for families, reduce wildfire threats and
sustain endangered fish and wildlife species.
They also say federal land managers
will help local governments “mitigate” wildfire risks and
give Native American tribes a voice in managing the rivers.
And, it “ensures that only federal
lands are affected by Wild and Scenic designations, while
protecting private property rights, water rights and
existing permits and rights of way on federal lands” and
“gives federal agencies the flexibility to mitigate fire
risks, allow for continued livestock grazing, respond to
wildfires and help restore watersheds and infrastructure
should a fire strike.”
Note that the “flexibility” to allow
grazing isn’t a guarantee. Presumably, a federal land
manager could change his or her mind in the future.
The main difference between the old
River Democracy Act and the new bill is the number of miles
of protected waters proposed has shrunk from 4,700 to 3,215.
To get an idea of how far 3,215 miles is, it’s a little more
than the distance from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine.
That’s in addition to the 2,173 miles
of Oregon rivers already designated wild and scenic. That’s
19 rivers, including the Clackamas, McKenzie, Molalla and
In the original River Democracy Act,
124 bodies of water were included; 86 were creeks. Under the
new version of the bill, out of 100 bodies of water still
proposed for protection, 62 are creeks.
The sponsors, Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff
Merkley, insist that adding thousands of miles of rivers,
streams and creeks to the listing will “protect the health
of these delicate ecosystems and high quality water
In that respect, the bill is unneeded.
Rivers are already protected under the federal Clean Water
Act, which guarantees the water quality of all rivers.
Our suspicion is the senators aren’t
interested in the creeks and rivers so much as the areas
adjacent to them. Their bill would double the width of
buffers along the rivers from a quarter-mile to a half-mile.
Let’s do some math. The senators want
to put new restrictions on 3,215 square miles of land.
That’s in addition to about 2,000 square miles of buffers
already designated. Combined, that’s bigger than the state
While reducing the number of creeks
and rivers included in the bill from 124 to 100 is
appreciated, we suggest the good senators keep going until
they reach zero.
As amended, the River Democracy Act
can only be described as a bad concept poorly executed.
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