Our Wild And Scenic Rivers

Jan 3, 2018

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a good round-number that begs for a retrospective view of what has been accomplished in the past half century, and also for an eye to the future with its prospects and challenges.

In southwestern Oregon and northern California we have Crater Lake National Park and Mount Shasta, seashores and redwoods, bugling elk and barking sea lions. All these natural highlights astonish, but every bit as extraordinary, we have rivers as ribbons of life connecting all our remarkable landscapes. 

Waters flow from the Cascade and Coastal Mountains to the sea through breathtaking rapids, depthless blue pools, rugged canyons, welcoming valleys, ancient forests, small towns, and cities.

Ask local people what’s so special about our corner of the universe, and it’s never long until someone says, “Our rivers!” 

California's Smith River, North Fork
Credit Tim Palmer

We can be grateful for protection of the finest of these in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system—the nation’s foremost program for safeguarding free-flowing waterways. Our region has the greatest concentration of these in America. From the Elk River southward through the Eel, back-to-back basins of eight major National Wild and Scenic Rivers link continuously through southern Oregon and northern California for 260 miles. 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a good round-number that begs for a retrospective view of what has been accomplished in the past half century, and also for an eye to the future with its prospects and challenges.

Our Rivers

While rivers in most other regions have been blocked by dams and maxed-out by diversions and development, here we still have whole streams, or sizable lengths of them, that flow mostly intact, and with pure water. They include some of the longest free-flowing mileage in the country, the best streams for iconic runs of salmon, superb whitewater with temptations for multi-day escapes to the world of river adventure, and shorelines with some of America’s finest ancient forests and real-life botanical museums harboring a diversity of plant life found nowhere else.

Elk River, Oregon
Credit Tim Palmer

Starting with the northernmost of this select group of streams, the Elk River—short but sweet—flows from wilderness recesses of the Coast Range and out to sea through a rainforest gorge of breathtaking beauty. With more intact old-growth forests than any other basin of its size on the Oregon coast, the Elk has been called the best of the Pacific slope’s salmon habitat, though the effects of an oversized state hatchery now threaten this river’s status as a renowned refuge for Chinook salmon. 

South of there, the Rogue River was among the initial eight rivers designated in the Wild and Scenic system in 1968 and has drawn anglers, boaters, and hikers since the days of Zane Gray. 

Sandersons Island, Rogue River, Oregon
Credit Tim Palmer

The river begins as the bubbling underground outlet of Crater Lake and plunges through pristine mileage of the Cascade Mountains. After serving as the supply line of the Rogue Valley and its cities, towns, and suburbs, it ends as the wildest river that completely transects the entire Coast Range of Oregon. With some of the ultimate whitewater in the West, the Illinois River is the Rogue’s largest tributary—also Wild and Scenic through its incomparable lower canyons.

While the Rogue is best-known among the region's National Wild and Scenic Rivers, the others are just as magnificent in their own ways, and all distinguish our region as the center of wild river excellence in America.

Less known but no less exceptional, the Chetco rushes from wilderness headwaters to sea with no dams and virtually no development until its final miles near Brookings. The entire upper half of the river wends its way, crystal clear, through boulder-bound recesses of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Anglers know the Chetco for its mammoth Chinook salmon and wild steelhead.

The Smith and its three major forks rank as the most pristine river of California and our southernmost official salmon “stronghold.” The North Fork’s remote canyon is notable for its austere red-rock geology with spring fed waterfalls spraying onto rare pitcher plants. 

Smith River, Middle Fork, Oregon Hole Gorge
Credit Tim Palmer

The main stem of this exquisite waterway nourishes magnificent forests of Jedediah Smith State Park and Redwood National Park and provides essential water supplies to Crescent City and surroundings.

Next, the Klamath is the third-largest river on the West Coast south of Canada and flows with the longest relatively natural passageway to sea—nearly 200 unfettered miles below Iron Gate Dam. Hundreds of rapids roil its watery path, essential for struggling runs of salmon. Its major tributary, the Trinity River offers its own remarkable descent through mossy green-walled canyons.

Finally the Eel, with its three forks and tributary Van Duzen, flows from seismically rumbling mountains and then courses through the heart of the redwood belt at Humboldt Redwoods State Park before entering a windswept coastal plain and flowing broadly into the Pacific south of Eureka.

All these rivers have been designated in the National Wild and Scenic program with the intent to keep their natural values intact. Designation on this prestigious list bans federal dams and federal permits for developments that can harm the rivers, including private hydroelectric projects. Though the federal government cannot regulate land use, designation encourages local planning efforts to keep homes and other building off the floodplains and to maintain greenway buffers along the waterfronts. 

Rogue River, Oregon
Credit Tim Palmer

Designation also aims to boost recreation management efforts, including the addition of access ramps where needed, resolution of conflicts between user groups such as jet boaters and all others in non-motorized craft, and recognition of the rivers’ need for clean water and adequate flows.

Threats And Protectors

Though Wild and Scenic designation recognized our finest rivers’ values and has set goals for conservation at the federal level, many challenges remain to sustain conservation gains of the past and to restore what has been lost from earlier eras when fish spawned here in unimaginable numbers and when primeval forests shaded the banks throughout the rivers’ lengths. 

Runoff from farms, urban pavement, and clear-cut logging practices have left Rogue tributaries with elevated temperatures crippling their historic runs of fish. Pristine water quality and fisheries of the Chetco, North Fork Smith, and Illinois tributaries are threatened by strip mine proposals that could turn these wondrous Siskiyou basins into wastelands. 

Rogue River, Oregon
Credit Tim Palmer

This conflict with National Wild and Scenic status owes to the Mining Law of 1872. Its archaic policies date to when sourdoughs roamed the backcountry on mules with picks and shovels rather than to realities of today’s industrial draglines capable of mountaintop removal – think, West Virginia.

The Klamath is diminished by diversions for agriculture at its headwaters and by thirsty gulps that swallow half the Trinity River and tunnel it toward southern California. The Eel basin has been raked by clear-cutting and now suffers from thefts of groundwater and creek runoff by the marijuana industry.

Affecting all rivers, global warming heats water that is already stressed by farmland runoff, urban drainage across pavement, clear-cut slopes that become sun bleached, and diversions that weaken the once robust and frigid flows from mountainsides. Climate change will worsen flooding. Ironically linked by global warming, droughts will intensify. 

Countering the climate crisis for our rivers means accelerating efforts to protect riverfront open space, restore healthy flows, and cool the source waters with forests once again growing tall. Ongoing efforts to replant stream fronts and floodplains with riparian trees seek to cast shade once again over the rivers and tributaries and thereby lower their temperatures.

The good news here is that our rivers have some of the most passionate and courageous defenders of wild rivers anywhere. 

Fighting for the interests of all who benefit from the healthy flows, Rogue Riverkeeper aims to improve that beloved river’s deteriorated water quality and to halt the Jordan Cove gas pipeline that would slice the region’s headwaters into fragments with hundreds of stream crossings prone to spills and erosion damage. 

In the coming year, go out and celebrate the Wild and Scenic Rivers of our region in your own way.

Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Project works to ban clear-cut logging from some of the finest Rogue tributaries. Friends of Kalmiopsis has kept the most egregious mining proposals at bay, and Kalmiopsis Audubon and Friends of Elk River have guarded the Elk from becoming just like every other cutover basin on the Coast. Klamath Riverkeeper has adopted that great artery, while Oregon Water Watch strives to restore flows to the troubled upper Klamath. Wild Rivers Land Trust is a conservation organization working to preserve our natural environment, including river corridors, coastal ecology, watersheds, estuaries, forests and working ranches and farms along Oregon’s Southern Coast. Friends of the Eel River aims to return water that for decades has been shunted southward for hydropower and vineyards at the expense of once-great salmon and steelhead runs.

Grab A Paddle

If you haven’t caught the drift here, I happen to be a river nerd of long standing. For my entire life, I’ve been drawn to streams large and small, to their rapids, their stories, their beauty, and their adventure, and so it’s no surprise that I found my home in Southwest Oregon—a place known as the “Wild Rivers Coast.” 

Klamath River, California
Credit Tim Palmer

My first summer job during college was for the National Park Service at Crater Lake, and on my first weekend I hitchhiked to the Rogue and backpacked along its trail. Again and again I’ve returned to this stream that became one of the first National Wild and Scenic Rivers because of its legendary fishing, whitewater, stunning canyon, deep forests, and abundant wildlife—values that persist to this day in large part because people before us had the foresight to fight for conservation, by blocking dams and safeguarding habitat. It’s a good place to cherish our region’s remarkable estate of wild rivers and to celebrate our vision to set aside the best of our waterways. 

To see this river, my wife, Ann, and I launched for the ultimate Rogue River journey of 154 miles, starting at the base of Lost Creek Dam and floating to the Pacific at Gold Beach.

Cold water sped us away through foothills of the Cascade Mountains and into the Rogue Valley. Friendly riffles led to thundering drops at Nugget Rapid and Ti’lomikh Falls where we scouted cryptic routes, gripped the oars tightly, and threaded narrow sweet lines amid islands, sudsing boils, and rocky horns that threatened on each side. Passage for both salmon and boats the whole way through the middle Rogue was possible only with the removals of the antiquated Gold Ray, Gold Hill, and Savage Rapids Dams between 2008 and 2010. We stopped to photograph the restored sites and to appreciate the free-flow, connected upstream and down with salmon once again braving spawning journeys the whole way to Ashland. 

Miles of gentle drifting through Grants Pass swept us onward and into deepening terrain as the Applegate River added its runoff and the designated Wild and Scenic stretch of the river began its dramatic incision through the Coastal Mountains. Enticing flumes of whitewater picked up speed as we neared Grave Creek, where the renowned “Wild Rogue” begins. 

Rogue River, Oregon
Credit Tim Palmer

From there to Foster Bar, wilderness shorelines make for one of the West’s classic whitewater journeys. We bypassed thundering Rainie Falls by bumping down a rocky sluice blasted out decades ago for easier fish passage, and on to a lineup of rollicking rapids guaranteed to exhilarate. The river dramatically narrowed to twenty feet in the mile-long Mule Creek Canyon where vertical walls marked our passage through the apex of the Coast Range. Then at Blossom Bar we scouted for a mandatory route evading a lineup of bedrock molars, incisors, bicuspids and fangs that trap the unwary. 

Most people end their Rogue River adventure at Foster Bar, where the road from Gold Beach touches down, but we continued on wider, smoother flows through spectacular lower canyons dressed in shaggy forests nourished by coastal fog in the mornings when anglers in drift boats eased by, casting into the eddies. Massive gravel bars invited us to camp for our final two nights, and then, two weeks after our launch, with the crush of Pacific surf exploding on the horizon, we rowed up to the boat ramp in Gold Beach where our journey came to its end. 

While the Rogue is best-known among the region’s National Wild and Scenic Rivers, the others are just as magnificent in their own ways, and all distinguish our region as the center of wild river excellence in America. There’s no better place to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the nation’s premier program for the protection of rivers and for the lifelines they provide to all. 

In the coming year, go out and celebrate the Wild and Scenic Rivers of our region in your own way. Take a whitewater trip down the Rogue, go fishing on the Elk, hike along the Smith, camp and swim at the Chetco, or do all of these at the Klamath, Trinity, and Eel. 

South Fork of the Eel River at Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California
Credit Tim Palmer

While you’re there, gaze into the flowing water, realize that all is connected upstream and down, and remember that our generation has been handed a gift from the last. We, too, can be inspired to do great things for this great place where we live, so that our finest rivers remain wild and scenic for all the generations to come.

Tim Palmer, of Port Orford, Oregon, is the author of Wild and Scenic Rivers: An American Legacy, and also Rivers of Oregon, Rivers of California, Field Guide to Oregon Rivers, and other books. See his work at www.timpalmer.org.