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America’s Wild and Scenic Rivers: A Legacy for Generations to Come
Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell
A Watershed Event: Celebrating a New Era in River Protection
Washington, DC—June 18, 2008

Thank you, Rebecca. It is a real pleasure to be here to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. For 40 years now, we have been protecting free-flowing rivers and streams for all the values they provide to us and to future generations of Americans.

I grew up in rural New England, in a land of forests and ancient mountains worn by rivers and streams. I still love those landscapes and the waters that run through them. Rivers and streams are the wellspring of all life. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., once said that “a river is more than an amenity … it is a treasure. It offers a necessity of life that must be rationed among those who have power over it.”

Those words were spoken almost 80 years ago, and they were prescient. It was a time of great projects to harness the power of nature, a time of damming and taming our rivers to meet the needs of a growing citizenry for water, energy, and flood control. But visionaries were starting to consider a conservation alternative—a system of protected free-flowing rivers. In the words of President Lyndon Johnson, “[T]he time has also come to identify and preserve free-flowing stretches of our great rivers before growth and development make the beauty of the unspoiled waterway a memory.”

Forty years ago, that was a radical notion. But people came together behind their leaders in Congress—leaders like the ones we are honoring here today—to pass the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The rivers included in the system were—and are—special. They represent some of the finest, most ecologically diverse streams in the country, providing all kinds of ecosystem services, including purified groundwater, a tremendous benefit for local communities.

Where are we after 40 years? There are 166 wild, scenic, and recreational rivers across the country, located in every part of the United States. One hundred four of those rivers, or 62 percent, are on the national forests. They make up 4,389 miles of river running through more than a million acres of river corridor, all managed for natural, cultural, and recreational values.

We have identified more than 850 additional rivers on the national forests that might be suitable for wild and scenic designation. We are managing these river segments for their remarkable values while we study them for potential designation. That study furthers our understanding of river-related values and management options.

In fact, Americans get a whole range of benefits from the wild and scenic rivers system. For one thing, the system is a model of integrated and collaborative resource management. It fosters basinwide management that crosses borders and boundaries, and it takes the whole suite of river-related values into account, such as water quality, scenic beauty, recreation opportunities, and aquatic and riparian habitats. The development of comprehensive river management plans promotes collaboration and deepens public awareness of the benefits that people derive from rivers.

We should also recognize the Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council for successfully promoting interagency collaboration. The Council’s leadership has improved coordination among the four agencies that jointly manage the wild and scenic rivers system, improving service to the American people and enhancing protection of the system.

And there are longer term benefits as well. In the Forest Service, we are giving special focus to critical issues facing all of us who care about natural resources and conservation—in fact, issues facing the entire planet—issues like climate change, global water supplies, and the disconnect between growing populations and nature, most specifically with kids. The wild and scenic rivers system is one way we can address each of these.

Take climate change, for example. The Forest Service is taking steps to mitigate climate change and steps to adapt to changes in ecosystems in forests and grasslands across the country. The comprehensive management plans we prepare for wild and scenic rivers can be tied to regional forecasts being developed through the work of our scientists. Our river management goals and guidance need to consider the impacts of climate change.

Or take water supplies. Over this next century, our population is expected to grow to more than 570 million thirsty Americans. Rivers that are designated as wild and scenic are protected through reserved federal water rights. They supply some of our cleanest water for growing downstream communities.

And when it comes to kids—wild, scenic, and recreational rivers offer great opportunities to connect youth to nature. Simply stated, rivers capture kids’ imagination through a dazzling variety of natural and cultural values. Who amongst you has not thrown a twig into a river and imagined its journey? Every child should have that opportunity. We are fortunate to have many designated rivers near urban centers; others flow through smaller communities. The Forest Service, with partners, conducts watershed education programs for kids and their families and hosts many volunteer/stewardship opportunities and river-specific activities.

The environmentalist John Sawhill once said, “In the end, our society will be defined not by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy.” The wild and scenic rivers system represents conservation at its best—and our society at its best. America’s wild, scenic, and recreational rivers are truly part of our outdoor heritage. As the past has shown—and the future will no doubt bear out—conserving rivers in a free-flowing state was the right decision. It was right for the land and right for the people we serve. The Forest Service is celebrating this great occasion, the 40th anniversary, with commemorations in each of our regions.

Thank you, American Rivers, for hosting this event. We deeply appreciate our partnership—all the success we have had in working with you to identify and engage local groups in wild, scenic, and recreational rivers stewardship. We look forward to continuing to work with you, for the sake of future generations, for many generations to come.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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