U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden has proposed adding over 4,700 miles of waterways to the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers System in Oregon. With half-mile no-touch buffers, the “Rivers Democracy Act” will apply access and management restrictions to 3 million acres of federal land, much of it in our communities in eastern Oregon.
There are significant issues still unaddressed and important questions still unanswered for such a consequential bill that is now moving through the U.S. Senate.
For starters, there are no detailed maps available from federal agencies that allow Oregonians to see where these designations are located, and how these designations would affect private property, public access and other traditional uses such as ranching. The only available map on the Internet appears to be produced by a Portland environmental group that helped write the bill.
Secondly, the original Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was intended to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values in a free-flowing condition. From a list provided by the bill’s supporters, we know that 85% of the bill’s Wild and Scenic designations would be applied to small creeks, gulches, draws and unnamed tributaries — many of which are not free-flowing and do not even carry water throughout the year.
If these small creeks, gulches, draws and unnamed tributaries are worthy of such a designation, why does this bill subvert the careful administrative study and review process under the original act? And why does this bill impose half-mile buffers in these areas, when the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act only calls for quarter-mile buffers?
Federal lands are at high risk of wildfire and need active management, thinning and fuels reduction work. Wildfires in recent years have scorched watersheds and degraded water quality as sediment and ash is deposited into our river systems. In 2020, over 76% of the acres burned in Oregon occurred on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
Management is already restricted in riparian areas. Would imposing even more restrictions through Wild and Scenic designations and half-mile buffers really make it easier to reduce wildfire risks?
Oregonians are right to ask why the River Democracy Act will add more restrictions to 3 million acres at a time when land management agencies are already struggling to implement proven and proactive forest management activities to reduce the risks of wildfires to forests and watersheds.
The reasons for agency inaction include a lack of funding and personnel, and the cost and time it takes them to satisfy exhaustive analysis and regulatory requirements. In addition to the half-mile buffers, the River Democracy Act will require agencies to prepare exhaustive river management plans that will take years to complete, drain agency resources, and open the door to ongoing and additional litigation.
Proponents of the bill claim the Rivers Democracy Act will support wildfire prevention efforts and protect private property rights. Yet history shows that Wild and Scenic River designations only encourage more lawsuits and analysis paralysis, especially where they intersect with private property and other public land uses.
As this bill advances through Congress, citizens should be asking: what does the bill actually do, why is it necessary, and does it really benefit rural and frontier Oregon?