FOLLOWED BY:Wild and scenic
rivers that aren't,
Capital Press editorial 8/6/21
HERMISTON, Ore. — Legislation that
would add nearly 4,700 miles of wild and scenic rivers
across Oregon would have no impact on private land or
existing property rights, according to the bill’s chief
architect, Sen. Ron Wyden.
Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, introduced
the River Democracy Act in February based on more than
15,000 public nominations from all corners of the state.
On Aug. 31, Wyden defended the bill
during an hour-long virtual town hall. The legislation has
faced opposition from rural counties over whether it would
add new restrictions on grazing, timber harvest and
Speaking from Hermiston in northeast
Oregon, Wyden pledged the bill would not go forward without
“loophole-free, airtight” protections for private property.
Rather, he said it applies only to
federal lands and was written specifically not to interfere
with existing property, grazing and water rights.
“Protecting existing rights was part
of our effort to strike a balance,” Wyden said.
If passed, the River Democracy Act
would roughly triple the number of wild and scenic rivers in
Oregon. The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System was
established in 1968 to preserve rivers with outstanding
natural, cultural and recreational values.
The bill also widens protective
buffers from a quarter-mile to half-mile on both sides of
designated streams, adding up to 3 million acres of
Earlier this year, the American Forest
Resource Council, a regional timber trade association,
conducted its own analysis of waterways nominated for
inclusion in the bill. The group found that just 15% were
actually labeled as “rivers,” with most being identified as
streams, gulches, draws or unnamed tributaries.
The AFRC and other opponents have
argued this is a misuse of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System
— though Wyden countered that intermittent streams are not
only valid for protection under the law, but necessary for
“I’ve come to think that there’s
almost a transportation analogy here that’s appropriate,”
Wyden said. “You don’t manage traffic just by building
highways. You need connecting streets, alleyways and
sidewalks. The same, in fact, applies to most river
Approximately 2 million Oregonians, or
nearly half the state’s total population, depend on
intermittent streams for clean drinking water, Wyden added.
The bill also requires the U.S. Forest
Service and Bureau of Land Management to assess wildfire
risks in each wild and scenic river corridor. The agencies
would then have up to six years to develop mitigation plans,
working with local, state and tribal governments.
The bill would create a $30 million
per year fund to restore and rehabilitate riparian areas
that do burn in a wildfire, Wyden said.
”What I see the River Democracy Act doing is creating a
multiple-use toolbox so we have this array of tools and we
can build on existing law,” Wyden said.
Supporters of the bill did speak
during the virtual town hall, including representatives of
the Nez Perce Tribe and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla
Kat Brigham, CTUIR chair, said she is
pleased with the River Democracy Act, and that it reinforces
stream restoration already undertaken by the tribes.
“It moves us closer to what we are
working toward — building, protecting and enhancing cold,
clean water, not only for our first foods, but for
ourselves,” Brigham said.
Others, however, say their questions
In a memo released shortly after the
meeting, the AFRC pushed back against the bill, arguing wild
and scenic designations would impose restrictions on forest
management and actually increase wildfire risk in the
protected stream corridors.
The bill would also “dramatically
increase management costs and complexity on-the-ground,
create conflicts between user groups, and distract and
overload federal agencies already overwhelmed by
catastrophic wildfire management and response,” the memo
Prior to the town hall, the Eastern Oregon Counties
Association sent a letter to Wyden outlining similar
concerns related to public access, fire prevention and
Going forward, Wyden said that while people may have
differences of opinion, he hopes to keep the lines of
communication open to answer questions and provide feedback.
People across Eastern Oregon — and the
rest of the state, for that matter — are right to question a
proposal by Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden to
designate 4,700 miles of rivers, creeks, ditches and swales
as federal “wild and scenic rivers.”
Perhaps a few actual rivers might
deserve attention, but 4,700 miles? That’s the distance from
Portland to Oslo, Norway.
When we think of wild and scenic
rivers, we think of the Rogue River in Western Oregon or the
Metolius River in Central Oregon. In fact, those rivers are
already designated wild and scenic — along with 66 others
across the state. All told, 1,916 miles of rivers have been
designated, according to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers
One wonders where the friends of Wyden
and Merkley found any actual rivers that hadn’t already been
designated. In Wallowa County, commissioners hired a
consulting firm to track down 404 miles of “rivers” proposed
to be designated wild and scenic. They found that most are
not even labeled rivers, are not free-flowing and do not
have water year-round.
If they are not rivers, how could they
be designed wild and scenic rivers?
It’s time for Wyden and Merkley to
rethink this bill. Whatever the intent of the bill is, it’s
not protecting wild and scenic rivers, because that’s
already been done.
The senators say school children and
others came up with the list of new rivers. That’s why they
called their bill the River Democracy Act.
Maybe school children and
environmental groups had a say in the bill, but Eastern
Oregon counties didn’t.
Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ore., said he
talked with the 63 commissioners representing the 20
counties in his 69,000-square-mile congressional district;
53 commissioners oppose the River Democracy Act.
When Eastern Oregon counties
questioned the need to designate more rivers — and to expand
the protected zones to a half mile on each side — the
senators said they had sent a letter last fall informing
them of their plan.
That, of course, is not the point.
The point is that Oregon’s senators
would think this is a good idea, without benefit of local
support and without fully considering how it will impact
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