PORTLAND — A Senate bill that would designate nearly 4,700 miles of wild and scenic rivers in Oregon is being criticized for including hundreds of small creeks, streams and gulches that, in some cases, were found to completely dry upon inspection.
The American Forest Resources Council, a trade group representing the timber industry, recently conducted an analysis of the proposal, arguing that certain non-river segments under consideration “do not meet the intent or definition of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.”
Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, introduced the River Democracy Act on Feb. 3. The legislation was developed based on more than 15,000 nominations submitted by the public for Wild and Scenic River Act protections.
But according to the AFRC, just 15% of the waterways are actually labeled as “rivers.”
Andy Geissler, federal timber program director for the AFRC, said he used forest maps to cross-reference and locate the proposed sites listed for inclusion in the bill.
Out of 886 segments, 752 are identified as “streams,” rather than rivers. Another 33 are identified as “gulches,” one “draw” and 17 were “unnamed tributaries.”
Geissler said he visited several of the streams earlier this year along the Nestucca, North Umpqua and Applegate rivers, spanning the northern Oregon coast south to the Rogue Valley.
Photos taken at Southern Oregon’s Bear Gulch in May show Geissler straddling a dry channel, virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape.
“It was pretty shocking to see what was proposed down there,” Geissler said. “Part of it is a lack of analysis.”
Geissler’s research and observations were the basis for comments submitted by the AFRC on the River Democracy Act, which received a public hearing on June 23 in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The bill would roughly triple the number of wild and scenic rivers across Oregon to protect fish and wildlife, water quality and outdoor recreation values.
It also increases wild and scenic river corridors from a quarter-mile to a half-mile on both sides, which adds up to approximately 3 million acres of protected land — an area approximately the size of Connecticut.
The concern, Geissler said, is whether the designation will make it harder for land managers to do forest thinning projects designed to reduce the size and severity of wildfires.
“My assumption is these half-mile corridors will be no-touch buffers,” he said.
AFRC President Travis Joseph said the group does not oppose the Wild and Scenic River Act, created in 1968 to preserve rivers with “outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values.” However, he said the River Democracy Act violates the spirit of the law.
Catastrophic wildfires, erosion and sedimentation pose the greatest threats to watersheds and rivers, Joseph said.
”Arbitrary restrictive land designations only tend to impede public lands access and the most important work needed to reduce wildfire risks and impacts,” he said. “Unfortunately, this bill only serves to make management of federal lands more restrictive at a time we are experiencing larger and more severe wildfires.” Wyden, who is spearheading work on the bill, pushed back against that notion.
The bill requires the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to establish wildfire plans and cooperative agreements with states and local governments to allow forest thinning within riparian areas that haven’t been prioritized until now, Wyden said.
In addition, Wyden said the River Democracy Act allows ephemeral and intermittent streams to be included in the national Wild and Scenic River system.
“These are some of the most important tributaries of larger, more iconic systems like the Columbia, Willamette and Rogue rivers,” Wyden said in a statement, adding that 1.7 million Oregonians receive drinking water from public systems that rely at least in part on intermittent, ephemeral or headwater streams.
Steve Pedery, conservation director for the environmental group Oregon Wild, said there is nothing in law that prevents an intermittent stream from qualifying for protection.
“To people who manage rivers, and are working on things like restoring salmon or protecting drinking water, they recognize that you have to start with the headwaters,” Pedery said. “You can’t just focus on the big river downstream.”