Oregon’s ‘Rivers Democracy Act’ is a really bad idea

What is S.192?

Introduced by Senators Merkley and Wyden, the bill (known as the ‘River Democracy Act’) would add nearly 4,700 miles of Oregon “rivers” to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.  Here’s why it’s a really bad idea:

First, what are “Wild and Scenic Rivers?”

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 was enacted to preserve certain rivers with “outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition.”  The 1968 Act provides a mechanism for robust study and review of proposed waterways to ensure they are eligible and/or suitable for designation.

What’s the problem with S.192?

S.192 subverts this study and review process by unilaterally adding 4,700 miles to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Most of the waterways identified in the bill are not even classified as rivers. The authors of the bill only classify 15 percent of the proposed segments as rivers, most are streams, gulches and unnamed tributaries.

Considering past use and litigation of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, the bill raises a lot of questions about how it will impact future access, private property and water rights and other traditional uses of both public and private land.

Why should I be concerned about S.192?

Similar to congressionally-designated wilderness, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 imposes management and access restrictions along waterways and associated buffers designated as “Wild and Scenic.” This means public lands managers would face additional restrictions on the use of mechanical treatments and other management tools to mitigate the risks of wildfires and other threats to these landscapes.  S.192 effectively imposes these restrictions on about 3 million acres of buffers, many of which are federal lands at extreme risk of severe wildfires.

By applying half-mile buffer restrictions to proposed segments, it could impact public access, water resource management, forest and vegetation management, ranching and grazing, mining and other uses on an estimated three million acres of public lands – a land mass nearly twice the size of the state of Delaware.

For those of us concerned about severe wildfires, we are especially troubled with how S. 192 would affect fuels reduction efforts on federal lands. Nearly half a million acres of federally managed forest land burned in western Oregon in 2020.  Approximately 280,000 acres burned at moderate and high severity, meaning at least 60 percent of a stand’s live trees were killed in a fire.

Are maps available to help Oregonians understand the implications of this bill to their communities?

No official maps have been provided by the Senators or federal land management agencies to allow Oregonians to determine how their communities would be affected by the proposal.

Proponents of the bill claim it will provide new “protections” to Oregon waterways. What are those?

It’s unclear what problems this bill is trying to solve.  Commercial timber harvesting is already prohibited or tightly regulated in and around riparian areas. As we witnessed last year, catastrophic wildfires including subsequent erosion and sedimentation pose the greatest threat to watershed and rivers. Arbitrary restrictive land designations only impede public lands access and the most important work needed to reduce wildfire risks and impacts.

Proponents of the bill also claim it will help mitigate fire risks to protect homes and businesses near these newly-designated lands. What about that?

Nothing in the bill directs or authorizes federal agencies to utilize all available land management tools- including mechanical treatments- to reduce the risk of severe wildfires, nor does it explicitly permit post-fire restoration work, such as the removal of dead and dying trees, to maintain public access.  Rather, the bill only allows agencies to consider prescribed fire, even though fire alone will not address heavy and unnatural fuel loads on already fire-prone landscapes.

Oregon’s ‘Rivers Democracy Act’ is a really bad idea