Incalculable Value: Wild Rivers at 50

by CalWild intern Savannah Blide

This October, the landmark Wild and Scenic Rivers Act will celebrate its 50th anniversary. This legislation, signed by President Johnson, is designed to preserve outstanding rivers in their natural free-flowing condition for conservation and recreational enjoyment. Under the act, 12,374 miles of rivers and streams are protected in the United States. However, this is still less than 1% of the total 3.6 million miles of rivers and streams in the nation. In comparison, 600,000 miles of rivers and streams are prevented from their natural flow by 84,000 dams. This 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act gives us all a moment to reflect on the history of conservation in the U.S., understand the importance of public lands to our communities, and go forward with a clear vision of what work still needs to be done to protect our wild places.

In an era of rapid dam construction for hydroelectric power generation and water supply, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act established the framework for river conservation in the U.S. There are both federal and state systems of classification; rivers are often encompassed federally and by the state, as is the case for much of California’s protected rivers. In California, about 2% of rivers and streams are classified as Wild and Scenic, totaling 2,200 miles. Some of these make up California’s most iconic landscapes, including the Merced in Yosemite National Park and the Klamath in the northwest.

Rivers are classified in three ways: Wild, Scenic, and Recreational. Wild rivers are accessible only by trail, with primitive, undisturbed shoreline and entirely free of dams or other impoundments. Scenic rivers are very similar, but are somewhat accessible by roads and may have some limited development on the shore. Recreational rivers are both accessible and have some development, and may have been dammed in the past, but are now free-flowing. Regardless of a river’s classification, they all hold the same level of protection and value.

Regardless of their level of development or classification within the national system, each protected river represents a national commitment to wild places. In an era of shrinking environmental protections and rampant oil and gas drilling on public lands, there is a pressing need to fight for the spaces that provide all people with an incalculable value. At this 50 year milestone, it is important to keep pushing for more public lands and wilderness protection in California.

Here are some rivers that CalWild is working to protect under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. There is no better way to celebrate 50 years of river protection than getting outside and enjoying all that these rivers have to offer. All of these rivers have outstanding recreational opportunities, perfect for reminding yourself exactly why we work so hard to keep these rivers beautiful and accessible to all.

Kings River

The upper part of the Kings River, flowing through Kings Canyon-Sequoia National Park, is already federally designated Wild and Scenic. However, after its confluence with Spring Creek, there are 12 additional miles of free-flowing river with no road access and exemplary fishing and boating conditions. This segment has been threatened by dams in the past, and should be designated Wild and Scenic just like its upstream section. The Kings River has excellent whitewater rafting and kayaking sections. If you’re looking for something a little slower, there are many excellent places to go fly fishing. Additionally, the Kings River Trail is a beautiful way to experience the river as it meanders for several miles along the shore, through wildflowers and canyons.

Salmon Creek

Salmon Creek is currently being proposed for Wild and Scenic designation by CalWild staff. Originating on the Kern Plateau in Sequoia National Forest, this river is up for designation due to its unique ecological value, beautiful scenery, and outstanding recreational opportunities. The proposal classifies the river in three segments; two that are Wild and one that is Recreational. For CalWild’s report on the proposed designation, click here. There are many great hiking trails around Salmon Creek on the Kern plateau–we particularly recommend the Salmon Creek Falls hike, which has gorgeous High Sierra scenery and many refreshing swimming holes.

California Desert Protection and Recreation Act – Deep Creek

Introduced to Congress by Senator Feinstein, SB.32 proposes protections for 73 additional miles of rivers in the California Desert Conservation Area. This bill also adds a cumulative 67 square miles to Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks, as well as other federal wilderness designations for public lands in the surrounding areas of the California Desert. One river slated for protection under SB.32 is Deep Creek, which flows out of the San Bernadino Mountains through the Mojave Desert, providing critical habitat for many species. The Pacific Crest Trail runs alongside Deep Creek, and you can hit the Deep Creek Hot Springs to relax and take in the scenery.

Central Coast Heritage Protection Act – Upper Sespe Creek

This bill would designate 159 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers in Los Padres National Forest and the Carrizo Plain National Monument and safeguard over 245,000 square miles of wilderness in the Central Coast area. In addition to the ecological value of protecting this land, there is significant recreational opportunity through this legislation – it would also establish a 400 mile long Condor National Recreation Trail stretching from Los Angeles County to Monterey County. In addition to the trail, there is amazing opportunity for fishing, boating, and climbing on many of the rivers that would be protected under the act. Upper Sepse Creek, which would have 21 miles of protected flow, has high quality rock climbing and a population of endangered steelhead trout. You can thank Representative Carbajal and Senator Harris for this bill here – acknowledgement goes a long way towards encouraging further legislative actions!

These potential Wild and Scenic rivers are just a few of the many eligible waterways in California that could earn designation in the future. CalWild is working to protect the future of California’s most ecologically and culturally valuable rivers. To help with CalWild’s Wild and Scenic Rivers projects, donate here.

To explore all of California’s Wild and Scenic Rivers, click here for a map, or go to the Wild Rivers Project website and check out the fact sheets for each river for hiking information, local advocacy groups, and other ways to experience the unique beauty of our rivers and streams. Get out there and enjoy the beauty of California’s protected waterways!