Overview of Wild and Scenic Rivers

Fog rising from the Farmington River
Fog rising over the Farmington River.

Photo by Tom Cameron

By the 1960s, it was becoming clear that our policies and attitudes towards rivers were creating a crisis. Rivers were being dammed, dredged, diked, diverted, and degraded at an alarming rate. Because of this, Congress created the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

Selected rivers in the United States are preserved for possessing outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values. Rivers, or sections of rivers, so designated 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. It 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.

Designated segments need not include the entire river and may include tributaries. For federally administered rivers, the designated boundaries generally average one-quarter mile on either bank in the lower 48 states and one-half mile on rivers outside national parks in Alaska in order to protect river-related values.

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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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: December 1, 2016