Protecting Rivers Through Land Management Plans

The best-known and most enduring method of protecting rivers under this historic law is the designation of rivers into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System—each designation approved by a separate Act of Congress.

We can also secure more immediate protections for key rivers under other, relatively simpler, administrative measures by influencing land management planning processes.


Paddling the Nooksack, WA | © Brett Baunton / Wild Nooksack

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act requires each federal land management agency—overseeing national forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges and national conservation lands—to periodically study rivers in their respective bailiwicks for possible wild and scenic protection.

These river studies typically are undertaken during the revision of federal land management plans that guide the daily work of those public landscapes. The review analyzes what the Act calls a river’s “eligibility” and “suitability” for wild & scenic designation. For rivers so identified, the agency is obliged to provide deliberate and defined interim protection for candidate rivers.

That is where river-protection activists have a key opportunity to influence practical policy and actions on behalf of high-value, healthy local rivers. This is your cue for action.


In intermountain west states, the bulk of federal lands that include rivers with potential for wild & scenic protection are managed by the U.S. Forest Service or by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In response to federal law, both those agencies completed their first generation of comprehensive management plans—for individual national forests and for individual BLM field offices—in the 1980s and 1990s, with congressional instruction to update those plans every 15-20 years. Nearly all plans therefore have either been revised recently or are about to be.

Many national forests and BLM field offices in the intermountain region are currently revising their plans—and studying rivers—right now! These pending and upcoming plan revisions provide key opportunities for river-protection advocates to influence the future management and protection of high-value rivers. 

Wild and Scenic Rivers and Planning Background

Wild and Scenic Rivers: an American Legacy by award-winning author and photographer Tim Palmer illuminates the values of the National Wild and Scenic River System, probes its problems, and addresses its future. This work includes 160 stunning photographs and a lively history involving citizen activists, scientists, dedicated public officials, and enlightened political leaders.