Science & Environment

Wyden, Merkley propose new protections for 4,700 miles of Oregon rivers

By Bradley W. Parks (OPB)
Bend, Ore. Feb. 3, 2021 8:28 p.m.

The legislation would add thousands of miles of rivers and streams to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers program to expand recreation, safeguard water quality and prepare for wildfire.

Greg Hatten slowly drifts the final stretch of the Wild and Scenic Rogue River.

A person rows a McKenzie-style Drift Boat down the Wild and Scenic Rogue River in Southern Oregon in this file photo from 2019. A bill before Congress would add more than 4,000 miles of Oregon rivers and streams to the Wild and Scenic Rivers program.

Nick Fisher / OPB

Oregon’s U.S. senators have proposed an enormous conservation package that would shield thousands of miles of the state’s rivers from development.


Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, on Wednesday announced the River Democracy Act of 2021, which would add nearly 4,700 miles of Oregon rivers and streams to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system.

The bill would nearly triple the total number of river miles with Wild and Scenic protections in Oregon and includes waterways in almost every part of the state. It would also expand the amount of land protected in Wild and Scenic River corridors from a quarter-mile on both sides of the river to a half-mile.

It amounts to one of the largest public lands conservation proposals in state history.

“I was completely blown away by the number of miles included,” said Gena Goodman-Campbell, who directs the stewardship program for the Oregon Natural Desert Association. “We’re just thrilled that Sen. Wyden decided to go bold.”


The bill aims to boost recreation, protect water quality and wildlife, safeguard cultural resources and foods, and mitigate wildfire risk. It comes after a yearslong public process in which Oregonians nominated waters for protection.

“Oregonians made it loud and clear: they cherish Oregon’s rivers and want them protected for generations to come,” Wyden said in a press release. “More protected rivers and clear management objectives means more jobs, improved wildfire resiliency and a guarantee for the livability of Oregon.”

The senators’ proposal drew swift praise from conservationists, outdoor recreationists, public officials and others.

“In a time where we’re used to just a steady march of development, it’s nice to know that these places can be kept the way they are,” said Tristan Henry, who co-chairs the Oregon chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

Congress approved the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968 to shield waterways largely unbothered by humans. The law outlines three designations for protection — wild, scenic and recreational.

Wild rivers are the least-developed of the three and are generally only accessible by trail. Scenic rivers are accessible by road in some spots. Recreational rivers are easiest to get to.

Wyden committed in 2019 to flexing the law’s muscle to make Oregon a national leader for wild and scenic rivers. Oregon currently has more than 2,100 river miles protected under the act.

The bill before the current Congress would box out most new mining in and around protected waterways. Existing mining projects and claims could proceed.

The legislation also encourages federal land managers to develop management plans alongside Native American tribes in addition to state and local governments.