Conservation Column: The River Democracy Act of 2021 Would Protect More Oregon Waterways

Riddle: You’re out hiking one day, and you catch glimpses of osprey, kingfishers, American Dippers, herons, perhaps a flycatcher, a woodpecker, a warbling vireo. Where are you?

As you listen to the bird calls, the sun glints off the water but the edges of the stream are cooled by the shade of riparian vegetation. You see flashes of fish, and darting damselflies, hopping frogs, and puddling butterflies. Dare you dream that this river oasis will still be providing habitat in a few years?

Dare away. On February 3rd, Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley introduced the River Democracy Act of 2021 in Congress. The legislation would add nearly 4,700 miles of rivers and streams in Oregon to the national Wild and Scenic Rivers system, established in 1968. Oregon now has 2,173 miles designated in the Wild and Scenic Rivers system, but that total is only about 2% of Oregon’s 110,994 miles of waterways. The River Democracy Act of 2021 would triple that to about 6% of Oregon’s rivers and streams. It would also double protected land from a quarter-mile corridor on both sides of the river to a half-mile.

The public has been deeply involved in this process. Just over a year ago, recommendations were solicited. Since then, nearly 2,500 Oregonians offered more than 15,000 nominations including submissions from a middle school science class (Tumalo Creek), river guides (Rough and Ready Creek), and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (Umatilla River and Middle Fork John Day). The Act applies to only federal lands, while protecting private property rights and water rights. It prohibits dams, clear-cut logging, and other harmful activities in protected areas. As part of the plan, Native American tribes will work with federal land managers to develop river management plans. Wild and Scenic River corridors will be assessed for wildfire risks, with managers required to implement a plan that reduces wildfire threats to nearby homes and businesses, and they will work with local agencies in the event of a wildfire. River management plans to be developed will include stream and forest restoration work, and species restoration for culturally significant native species, such as huckleberry and salmon.

This legislation will help:

  • Protect habitat for riparian vegetation, fish, birds, and wildlife.
  • Protect species of concern, such as endangered salmon that need cool waters and are highly sensitive to turbidity and loss of streamside habitat.
  • Protect watersheds and ensure access to high-quality drinking water.
  • Preserve cultural resources and foods, particularly providing benefits to families with traditions of fishing for salmon and steelhead. 
  • Benefit Oregon ranchers and farmers who need clean water to irrigate their crops and sustain their livestock.
  • Decrease wildfire risk and develop fire management plans that increase resiliency of the river and adjacent communities.
  • Mitigate climate change through protecting vegetation that sequesters large amounts of carbon and helps keep waterways cooler.
  • Support and bolster the outdoor recreation economy. Outdoor Recreation Industry data indicates that outdoor recreation supports 224,000 jobs and generates $15.6 billion in consumer spending.
  • Provide opportunities for recreation and connection with nature (a host of activities are supported such as camping, rafting, kayaking, birding, hiking, photography, fishing, etc.)
  • Ensure these opportunities exist for future generations.

More information and a link to thank the senators can be found here: ouroregonrivers.org/