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LBJ Created the Wild & Scenic Rivers and National Trails Systems 50 Years Ago

by Countable | 10.1.18

On October 2, 1968 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act and the National Trails System Act into law, preserving rivers and trails as resources for the recreational enjoyment of the public.

Why did they come up?

In February 1965, LBJ delivered an address to Congress on “Conservation and Preservation of Natural Beauty”, in which he asked lawmakers to take steps to preserve scenic rivers and trails for Americans:

“Those who first settled this continent found much to marvel at. Nothing was a greater source of wonder and amazement than the power and majesty of American rivers… We will continue to conserve the water and power for tomorrow’s needs with well-planned reservoirs and power dams. But the time has also come to identify and preserve free flowing stretches of our great scenic rivers before growth and development make the beauty of the unspoiled waterway a memory.”
“The forgotten outdoorsmen of today are those who like to walk, hike, ride horseback or bicycle. For them we must have trails as well as highways. Nor should motor vehicles be permitted to tyrannize the more leisurely human traffic. Old and young alike can participate. Our doctors recommend and encourage such activity for fitness and fun.”

Over the course of the next two years the Interior Dept. developed recommendations about rivers and trails that should be considered for protection. It then submitted its reports to Congress, which crafted and passed the bills without much controversy.

What did they do?

The National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act preserves designated rivers “in their free-flowing condition to protect the water quality of such rivers” in their entirety or in designated sections. Each river is administered by a federal or state agency (although private property owners are asked to collaborate) and the damming of such rivers is prohibited. Additionally, development within one quarter mile of the riverbank on federally-administered rivers involving activities that’d adversely impact the values of the river is prohibited.

There are three designations for protected rivers: Wild River Areas are free-flowing, relatively inaccessible, and “represent vestiges of primitive America”; Scenic River Areas are free-flowing and largely undeveloped but are accessible by roads in some places; and Recreational River Areas may have undergone some diversion in the past or are readily accessible with limited development along their shorelines.

It initially covered eight rivers: Clearwater (ID); Eleven Point (MO); Feather River (CA); Rio Grande (NM & TX); Rogue (OR); St. Croix (MN & WI); Salmon (ID); and Wolf (WI). Another 27 rivers were included as possible future additions to the system subject to an act of Congress.

The National Trails System Act created three types of protected trails: National Scenic Trails which are more than 100 miles in length and require congressional designation; National Recreation Trails that can be designated by federal agencies are primarily around urban areas, and connecting-and-side trails (of which there are only two). It also established the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail ― the first two national scenic trails.

What has the impact been?

As of August 2018, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System protects over 12,754 miles of 209 rivers ― an amount that’s less than one-quarter of one percent of America’s rivers. That stands in contrast to more than 600,000 miles of American rivers that have been modified by more than 75,000 dams.

The National Trails System has grown as well, with a fourth designation ― National Historic Trails ― added in 1978. In total, it includes more than 30 National Scenic and Historic Trails and over 1,000 National Recreation Trails spanning more than 50,000 miles combined.

— Eric Revell

(Photo Credit: Bureau of Land Management / Creative Commons)


Written by Countable

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