Wild and Scenic Rivers and Trails System Acts Are Passed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. government responded to growing environmental awareness during the 1960’s and passed legislation to protect wild and scenic rivers and national scenic trails in the United States.

Summary of Event

The growing environmental awareness of the mid-1960’s created a political climate that favored conservation of the remaining wilderness areas within the United States. President Lyndon B. Johnson called for protection of wild rivers in his 1965 state of the union address. Stewart L. Udall, who was appointed secretary of the interior by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, advocated an aggressive national conservation policy. Two of the distinct political acts resulting from this increased interest in the environment were passage of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the National Trails System Act. Senator Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat and environmentalist, sponsored the legislation. Both acts were signed into law by President Johnson on October 2, 1968. Environmental policy, U.S.;water Environmental policy, U.S.;federal land National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968) National Trails System Act (1968) Conservation;public land [kw]Wild and Scenic Rivers and Trails System Acts Are Passed (Oct. 2, 1968) [kw]Scenic Rivers and Trails System Acts Are Passed, Wild and (Oct. 2, 1968) [kw]Rivers and Trails System Acts Are Passed, Wild and Scenic (Oct. 2, 1968) [kw]Trails System Acts Are Passed, Wild and Scenic Rivers and (Oct. 2, 1968) Environmental policy, U.S.;water Environmental policy, U.S.;federal land National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968) National Trails System Act (1968) Conservation;public land [g]North America;Oct. 2, 1968: Wild and Scenic Rivers and Trails System Acts Are Passed[09970] [g]United States;Oct. 2, 1968: Wild and Scenic Rivers and Trails System Acts Are Passed[09970] [c]Environmental issues;Oct. 2, 1968: Wild and Scenic Rivers and Trails System Acts Are Passed[09970] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 2, 1968: Wild and Scenic Rivers and Trails System Acts Are Passed[09970] [c]Government and politics;Oct. 2, 1968: Wild and Scenic Rivers and Trails System Acts Are Passed[09970] [c]Natural resources;Oct. 2, 1968: Wild and Scenic Rivers and Trails System Acts Are Passed[09970] Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;environmental policy Udall, Stewart L. Church, Frank

By the 1960’s, many of America’s rivers were severely degraded. Industrialization, chemical-intensive farming, and urban sprawl were putting tremendous pressure on the nation’s river resources. Within the United States, few wild rivers remained as nearly 600,000 miles of once free-flowing rivers were now altered by approximately sixty thousand dams. The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA) gave protection to rivers or river sections deemed to have “outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values. . . .” With the WSRA, Congress declared that the long-established national policy of federal support for dam construction had to be complemented by the permanent protection of selected rivers in free-flowing condition to fulfill national conservation purposes. This decision to protect rivers marked a major shift in congressional policy. Previously, Congress supported aggressive dam building for hydroelectric power generation, irrigation, and flood control.

As part of the act itself, Congress designated eight river sections for immediate protection and identified twenty-seven others for study and possible inclusion. The eight original rivers were the Middle Fork of the Clearwater and the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho, the Feather River in California, the Saint Croix in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the Eleven Point in Missouri, the Rio Grande in New Mexico, the Rogue in Oregon, and the Wolf River in Wisconsin. In 1970, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway was added. While the WSRA was symbolically important, the eight original rivers only protected a total of 775 river miles. The Allagash added another 92 miles, but this was still a minuscule fraction of the nation’s entire river mileage.

The WSRA allowed rivers to be added to the Wild and Scenic River System in three ways. Congress could request a study of a potential river by the National Park Service or other federal agency. The report was given to the president, who then made a recommendation to Congress for action. Second, Congress could add a river on the basis of a recommendation from a federal agency without an official study. Third, a state could ask the secretary of the interior to designate a river. The act broadly defined “free-flowing river.” The existence of dams did not automatically disqualify a river as a potential addition to the Wild and Scenic River System. Congress did not require that the entire river be “naturally flowing” (that is, flowing without any human-made interference). There are segments of officially designated Wild and Scenic Rivers that are downstream from major dams or are even located between existing dams.

Section 7 was one of the most important and powerful parts of the WSRA. It directed all federal agencies to protect designated rivers and congressionally authorized candidate rivers. Specifically, the act prohibited the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) from licensing the construction of hydroelectric facilities on rivers that are listed or that have been authorized by Congress for study as potential additions. Federal agencies are prohibited from assisting in the construction of water resource projects that would have a negative impact on a designated river. Because water projects like dams are generally too expensive for local governments and private parties to build, removing federal assistance effectively halted large-scale water projects planned for designated rivers.

Rivers protected by the WSRA cannot be dammed, widened, dredged, filled, or straightened in the designated sections. Section 10 of the act specifies that management of the rivers should emphasize the protection of aesthetic, scenic, historic, archaeologic, and scientific features. Activities are limited to camping, hiking, swimming, fishing, nonmotorized boating, and hunting. Congress allowed for new mining claims and gave permission for limited use of motorized boats on some rivers. Existing mining claims were not canceled, but were subject to regulations designed to protect the river. In cases where the designated river flowed through private lands, the federal agency worked with local governments and owners to develop protective measures, avoiding land acquisition where possible.

With passage of the National Trails System Act (NTSA) of 1968, the federal government recognized the importance of developing and protecting scenic, historic, and recreation trails. Prior to passage of the NTSA, the federal role concerning trails was restricted to building and maintaining trails actually located on federal lands. The act allowed the federal government to provide financial assistance and support for volunteers maintaining trails and allowed the federal government to coordinate its efforts with states and other authorities.

The first NTSA trails established, and listed in the legislation, were two of the best-known existing trails—the 2,158-mile-long Appalachian Trail running from Maine to Georgia and the 2,638-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail extending from Mexico to Canada along the West Coast. The declared purpose of the NTSA was to provide for the increasing outdoor recreation needs of an expanding population and to “promote the preservation of, public access to, travel within, and enjoyment and appreciation of the open-air, outdoor areas and historic resources of the Nation.” To meet these purposes, the act directed that trails should be established “(i) primarily, near the urban areas of the Nation, and (ii) secondarily, within scenic areas and along historic travel routes of the Nation which are often more remotely located.”

The NTSA initially created four trail categories for protection: National scenic trails are extended trails (100 miles or longer) located to provide maximum outdoor recreation potential and to provide access to areas with scenic, historic, natural, or cultural qualities of national significance. Scenic trails include desert, marsh, grassland, mountain, canyon, river, and forest landforms. National recreation trails were existing regional or local trails established to provide a variety of outdoor recreation opportunities in or near urban areas. These trails were certified by the secretary of agriculture or of the interior. National historic trails are extended trails that follow original trails or routes of historic significance for the nation. Connecting or side trails provided additional points of public access or provided connections between the other trails. The National Trails System had a low political priority and has never enjoyed high levels of funding. After the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail were designated in the original legislation, no other trails were added until 1978.

Significance

The 1960’s could easily lay claim to the title of the decade of environmentalism. Along with the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers and the National Trails System Acts, there were several acts passed by Congress, including the following:

• The Wilderness Act Wilderness Act (1964) of 1964, which set aside protected areas of wilderness

• The Land and Water Conservation Fund Act Land and Water Conservation Fund Act (1965) of 1965, which established a fund for acquiring new recreation lands either within or adjacent to existing park units or as new parks themselves

• The National Historic Preservation Act National Historic Preservation Act (1966) of 1966 which allowed the secretary of the interior to develop the National Register of sites and buildings deemed historically or culturally significant

• The Air Quality Act Air Quality Act (1967) of 1967 which sought to reduce air pollution

• The National Environmental Policy Act Environmental Policy Act (1969) of 1969, which provided the foundation for national environmental policy into the twenty-first century.

The far-reaching Environmental Policy Act of 1969 requires that federal agencies carry out their duties in ways that minimize environmental damage. Furthermore, it requires that agencies must conduct studies on the potential environmental impact of all government-funded development projects. Important to private conservation groups, the planning procedure was open for public input.

The Wild And Scenic Rivers Act and the National Trails System Act were critical additions to a growing national environmental awareness, and that awareness extended to legislation by the federal government. The environmentalism of the 1960’s would extend into the 1970’s, as the Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970. Environmental policy, U.S.;water Environmental policy, U.S.;federal land National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968) National Trails System Act (1968) Conservation;public land

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doppelt, Bob, et al. Entering the Watershed. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993. The work includes recommendations for watershed-based river protection and an overview of appropriate legislation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hendee, John C., and Chad P. Dawson. Wilderness Management: Stewardship and Protection of Resources and Values. 3d ed. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 2002. An invaluable 640-page text not only for students of conservation, wilderness protection, and natural resources management but also professionals in the field. A reference classic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kerasote, Ted, ed. Return of the Wild: The Future of Our Natural Lands. Washington, D.C.: Pew Wilderness Center and Island Press, 2001. Explores the cultural politics of wilderness preservation, with chapters looking at wildlands from the perspectives of American Indians, conservationists, and Christians, and in the context of town planning, economics, and more.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Palmer, Tim. Endangered Rivers and the Conservation Movement. 2d ed. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. Covers the history of river protection efforts in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Department of the Interior. Trails for America. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1966. The Udall study that became the foundation for the National Trails System Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Department of the Interior. National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/. Extensive information on the National Wild and Scenic River System and National Scenic Trails System. Includes maps of protected areas, lists, national trails and rivers history, and links to related sites.

Mission 66 Plan Is Implemented

Lady Bird Johnson Begins the America Beautiful Program

Wilderness Act Is Passed

National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 Is Signed

Environmental Protection Agency Is Created

Categories: History Content