What Are Wild and Scenic Rivers?

By the 1960s, it was becoming clear that policies and attitudes were creating a crisis on America’s rivers. This crisis pushed Congress to create the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in 1968 (Public Law 90-542;16 U.S.C. 1271 et seq.) to protect rivers with outstandingly remarkable values (ORVs) in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations. The NPS manages and provides guidance on rivers that are administered by a variety of different parties and works closely with many partners to protect and enhance the Wild and Scenic Rivers placed under its care.

Free Flowing & Water Quality

These rivers, or sections of rivers and tributaries, are preserved in their free-flowing condition and are not dammed or otherwise impeded. National Wild and Scenic designation essentially vetoes the licensing of new hydropower projects on or directly affecting the river. The designation also provides very strong protection against bank and channel alterations that adversely affect river values, protects riverfront public lands from oil, gas, and mineral development, and creates a federal reserved water right to protect flow-dependent values.

Oustandingly Remarkable Values

Each designated wild and scenic river requires the protection of ORVs. An ORV must be a river-related value that is rare, unique, or an exemplary feature at a regional or national scale. ORVs may include scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values.

River Classification

Every Wild and Scenic River is classified into one of three categories as follows:

  1. Wild Rivers: Those rivers or sections of rivers that are free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive and waters unpolluted. These represent vestiges of primitive America.

  1. Scenic Rivers: Those rivers or sections of rivers that are free of impoundments, with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive and shorelines largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads.

  1. Recreational Rivers: Those rivers or sections of rivers that are readily accessible by road or railroad, that may have some development along their shorelines, and that may have undergone some impoundment or diversion in the past.

Specific management strategies will vary according to classification but will always be designed to protect and enhance the values of the river area.

Last updated: April 13, 2021