The National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act
Questions & Answers
What does National Wild & Scenic River designation mean?
Designation as National Wild & Scenic Rivers explicitly prohibits the federal government from licensing or permitting hydroelectric dams or major diversions on these streams. Federal agencies are also prohibited in assisting any water resource projects that may directly affect designated rivers. Public lands within an average of 1/4 mile corridor on both sides of the streams are managed to protect their outstanding scenic, recreational, historical/cultural, fish, wildlife, ecological, geological, and hydrological values.
How does Wild & Scenic affect private property?
Because the National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act confers no federal authority over private land use or local zoning, there is no practical impact on private property. Riverside land-owners will not be told what to do with their property or have their land confiscated by the federal government. The Act encourages but does not require county and city governments to adopt zoning and land use practices for private lands that implement the intent of designation.
Can private land be condemned?
Wild & Scenic designation actually limits federal condemnation authority. The Act prohibits fee title condemnation of private property if fifty percent or more of the land along a designated segment is already in public ownership, and land acquisition is limited to less than 100 acres per mile. Condemnation of scenic easements is allowed, but the use of condemnation is extremely limited by public opinion and limited agency budgets. According to federal agencies, no fee title or easement condemnation has ever occurred on a National Wild & Scenic River in California.
How does Wild & Scenic status affect public lands?
Public lands within an average of 1/4 mile on each side of the river are managed to protect the river’s free flowing character and outstanding values. Federal agencies that administer public lands are responsible for the management of designated rivers.††The Act encourages coordination between agencies that may manage different parts of the river, as well as cooperation with other regulatory agencies and local governments. Once designated, a plan will be developed by the appropriate federal agency to guide future management of the river.
What does Wild, Scenic, or Recreational classification mean?
In addition to protecting a designated river’s free flowing character and outstanding values, federal agencies are also required to manage the public lands along designated segments according to their Wild, Scenic, or Recreational classification. Classification is based on the existing level of development along the river. The following guidelines are used to establish classification:
Wild - These segments are wild, unroaded and undeveloped. Logging, road building, new mining claims, developed campgrounds, and motorized access are generally prohibited on Wild segments. All other activities associated with public lands such as grazing, mining of valid existing claims, hunting and other forms of non-motorized recreation are permitted subject to the protection of outstanding values.
Scenic - These segments are generally undeveloped, but may have occasional road crossings and riverside structures which are visually screened from the river. Motorized use on trails may or may not be permitted. All other activities normally associated with public lands are permitted, as long as visual quality and outstanding values are protected.
Recreational - These segments are generally developed, with parallel roads, bridges and structures. All activities normally associated with public lands are permitted subject to the protection of outstanding values.
Does Wild & Scenic status affect lands beyond the designated segments and river corridors?
The Act specifically prohibits water resource projects within, upstream, or downstream of designated segments that may “unreasonably diminish” the outstanding values for which the river was designated. The outstanding values protection mandate of the Act also requires the managing federal agency to regulate federal activities within a watershed that may adversely affect outstanding values.
Does Wild & Scenic status affect water rights?
The state's authority to regulate water rights remains unaffected by designation. There is a federal water right conferred by designation, but it begins at the date of designation and is junior to all other existing rights. To assert this right, the managing federal agency would have to apply to the appropriate state water rights agency and the granting of the right would follow existing state water rights procedures and established rule of law. To acquire water rights, federal agencies would have to pay fair market value.
How are rivers added to the Wild & Scenic System?
Congress may designate rivers outright through legislation or may direct federal agencies to conduct studies and make recommendations concerning designation. In addition, the Act requires federal agencies to identify potential Wild & Scenic Rivers in all land, water, and resource planning programs. State designated rivers may be added to the federal system upon the request of the state’s Governor and approval of the Interior Secretary.
How do federal agencies conduct Wild & Scenic River studies?
A federal Wild & Scenic study consists of two basic steps. The first step is to determine the eligibility of a river for Wild & Scenic status. To be eligible, a river must be free flowing and possess one or more outstanding values. Once a river is determined eligible, the agency provides interim protection of the river’s free flowing character and outstanding values. The second step is to determine suitability. This is a far more subjective assessment of the pros and cons of designation and non-designation. If the agency determines the river suitable for designation, a formal recommendation is made to Congress and interim protection is applied by the agency until Congress acts on the recommendation.
For More Information
For more information, contact Steve Evans at Friends of the River, (916) 442-3155, Ext. 221