"The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act did more than protect America's wild rivers. It was a pivot point in our relationship with the natural world. It kicked off the great environmental protections of our time," explains Rebecca Wodder, chair of the board of River Network and a lifelong river advocate.
Wodder's extensive background includes 17 years as President of American Rivers and serving as Senior Advisor to the Secretary of the Interior. She was in St. Paul last week to attend the premiere of The Wild and Scenic St. Croix, a film about the protection of the Wild and Scenic St. Croix River (one of the first eight rivers included in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968), and to facilitate a panel discussion about the next 50 years of river protection — a conversation that agencies, communities, river advocates and paddlers are having across the country. Events like these are bringing stakeholders together to look back at past accomplishments and into a future of new threats to our rivers in the face of sprawling development and a changing climate.
Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968 to preserve selected rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations. Among the first eight rivers included in the act were beloved waterways like the St. Croix, the Snake, and the Salmon. Since then, 200 other rivers have joined the ranks of Wild and Scenic protected waterways. While 208 protected rivers may sound significant, these rivers make up less than one quarter of one percent – 12,734 miles – of approximately 3.6 million miles of streams in the U.S. (Check out River Network's Water Protectors app, which highlights the Wild and Scenic rivers.)
Watch The Wild and Scenic St. Croix
Overall, Wild and Scenic protections have been effective in preserving rivers, and sometimes even bringing rivers back to life, but threats to our water resources have diversified and intensified. Wodder reflected on the many 'river victories' she has seen thanks to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, like the restoration of Fossil Creek in Arizona.
However, she believes the next 50 years will see new pressures and challenges that will complicate the playing field, particularly now that our environmental laws are being disregarded, if not attacked. Her list of the biggest threats to our rivers in the next 50 years include unsustainable resource use, climate change, invasive species, and development.
"We have unleashed pressures that will bring us to make hard choices that we don't want to make. I worry that we have bigger fights coming in the next couple of decades. It is going to be a tough time," Wodder speculates. She suggests that the 'dam era' could return as communities panic to maintain a consistent water supply, with some experiencing serious drought and others catastrophic flooding. "Our human instinct to control the forces around us could be our downfall," says Wodder.
Despite the doom and gloom of impending threats there is still hope for the next 50 years of river protection. We know more now about how healthy rivers contribute to vibrant communities, clean drinking water, the human spirit, the hydrologic cycle, and our delicate ecosystem than we did 50 years ago. We've witnessed the disasters brought on by flooding, levees, dams, erosion, and fires (to name a few). The future holds challenges that will test our ability as human beings to adapt. But there are actions we can take now to prevent major catastrophes coming down the pipeline.
"Everything is connected. Everything we do will be visited upon our rivers,” says Wodder. Her list of solutions are simple and embody the same timeless principles that inspired advocates in the ’60s and produced the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act: Protect our rivers. Give them space and let them flow freely. Respect what it takes for rivers to be healthy. Approach development projects with less cement. Remove old dams. Build trails. Run and bike and paddle. Reinvent your relationship with nature. Educate children. Work with natural systems and not against them, because in the end they will win.
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