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Frequently Asked Questions

About Wild and Scenic Rivers

Local communities seek Wild and Scenic River designations to protect our nation’s most outstanding, free-flowing rivers and the values that make them special such as exceptionally clean water, cultural resources, recreation, scenery, or fisheries. Passed in 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act established a system to strike a balance across the country between rivers that have been dammed or developed and those that are still healthy and free-flowing.

The Gila River is a place where families gather. Proponents of designating the Gila River Wild and Scenic want to keep it the way it is for future generations.

Why did Congress pass the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act?

Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act at the height of the modern dam building era to ensure that the construction of new dams is balanced with the protection of select free-flowing rivers that possess nationally significant values, known as Outstandingly Remarkable Values (ORVs).

This landmark law is the highest form of protection for rivers in the United States.

What does a Wild and Scenic Designation do?

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protects the free and natural flow of a river and its special values and features. The goal is to preserve the character of a river, alongside its traditional uses and give the community a clearer opportunity to guide its management over the long-term.

How does the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protect rivers?

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act:
• ensures water quality is maintained and, where possible, enhanced;
• restricts activities that would harm a river segment’s special values for which it was specifically designated; and
• prohibits the construction of new federally-licensed dams and other water development projects that could impact designated segments; and

How are Wild and Scenic Rivers designated?

The most common way is for Congress to pass Wild and Scenic legislation that is signed into law by the President.

Are there different classifications under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that preserve the condition of a river at the time it is designated?

Designated river segments are classified in one of three categories depending upon the extent of development and accessibility along each section:
“Wild” rivers are free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive, and waters unpolluted.
“Scenic” rivers are free of impoundments with watersheds still largely primitive and shorelines largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads.
“Recreational” rivers are readily accessible by road or railroad, may have some development along their shoreline, and may have undergone some impoundment or diversion in the past.

The citizen’s proposal for the Gila includes Wild, Scenic, and Recreational segments. Designated rivers are frequently referred to as “Wild and Scenic” as shorthand, though they also contain “Recreational” segments as well.

Are rivers designated in New Mexico?

Of the approximately 108,014 miles of rivers in New Mexico, a scant 124.3 miles of them are designated as Wild & Scenic—or approximately 0.01% (one tenth of one percent). Sections of the Rio Grande were among the first designated after passage of the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Parts of the Pecos, Rio Chama, and Jemez River (East Fork) were subsequently designated. All of New Mexico’s current designations are in the northern part of the state.

The Gila headwaters, including the San Francisco river, compose the largest network of natural streams in the Southwest and represent one of the largest undammed headwater watersheds left in temperate North America.

What is being proposed?

Wild and Scenic designation for approximately 436 miles of river segments for the Gila River, the San Francisco River, and major tributaries. All the river segments being proposed flow through federal public lands (none are being proposed that flow through private property).

Who does the proposal benefit?

The proposal seeks to permanently protect the current traditional uses and values the public enjoys today, and to ensure that future generations have the same opportunity to enjoy them that we have. These include hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, horseback riding, floating, family gatherings, scientific research, scenery, geology, fish, wildlife, historical, and cultural values amongst many others. The proposal seeks to protect all of these existing values for New Mexico residents and visitors alike.

Outdoor recreation in New Mexico generates almost $10 billion in consumer spending annually, almost $3 billion in wages and salaries, $623 million in state and local tax revenues, and directly employs 99,000 people. Designating these segments as Wild and Scenic could promote and enhance interest, as well as contribute to tourism and the local outdoor recreation economy. Growing this part of the local economy is a widely recognized regional goal.

Furthermore, designated Wild and Scenic Rivers have a requirement to enhance river values where appropriate, which in turn has led to a demonstrable increase in public and private investments in restoration projects, and public-private partnerships that otherwise would not have occurred. With our climate becoming more variable, protecting our water resources is of urgent importance.

Does designation impact watershed and habitat restoration and enhancement efforts?

A primary objective of WSR designation is to protect and enhance riparian area function and other river-related natural values. Specific actions to meet the objective are typically set forth in the management plan for each river. Projects may be constructed to protect and enhance fish and wildlife.

What is the difference between this legislative proposal and the Forest Plan Revision process?

The citizen’s led legislative proposal has no tie or link to the Forest Service planning process.

Interest in designating the Gila River and its tributaries date back to the early 1970’s. This latest citizen led effort to request that federal legislation be introduced and passed started well before the current forest service planning process and began approximately five years ago with an intensive inventory to determine if segments met the criteria and were worthy of protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and where designations made practical sense. Numerous technical narratives and detailed maps were developed from these efforts, ultimately being synthesized into the citizen’s proposal. Outreach to local stakeholders continues to help refine the proposal. Citizen’s proposals are a common method to initiate congressional action.

The Gila National Forest cannot create a Wild and Scenic River but can recommend them to Congress. Only Congressional designation can provide durable protection to keep the river free-flowing and protect its values.

Can areas already in another federal designation be designated as a Wild and Scenic River (WSR)? How do overlapping designations work?

Yes. Congress frequently add WSR status to rivers flowing through national parks, National wildlife refuges and designated wilderness areas. The boundaries for WSR may or may not extend beyond the boundaries of other designations. For example, the Wild and Scenic Pecos River is within the Pecos Wilderness.

Each designation recognizes distinct values for protection and defining management objectives. When guidelines for overlapping designations differ, the more protective management strategy is followed.

Would the Gila Wild and Scenic Citizen’s Proposal stop the AWSA diversion project?

None of the river segments being proposed would affect the current AWSA diversion project New Mexico Unit of the Central Arizona Project, or CAP, as defined by the NM Cap Entity’s proposed action, to the best of our knowledge.

Would a designation potentially limit the amount of water the CAP could divert under the 1968 WSR Act or AWSA?

Wild and Scenic designation has no effect on existing valid water rights or interstate water compacts. New Wild and Scenic water rights claimed under state law would have a priority date as of the river’s date of designation by Congress and would be considered junior to existing water rights.

The Act expressly reserves only the quantity of water necessary to protect river values including water quality and flow-dependent Outstanding Remarkable Values.

Are projects upstream or downstream of WSR segments impacted?

Designation prevents federal projects upstream or downstream of a WSR segment that would “invade the area or unreasonably diminish the scenic, recreational, and fish and wildlife values” present in the area on the date of designation of a segment.

If a proposed project is determined to invade the designated river the agency can recommend measures that alter the project proposal that mitigates the effect of the project so as not to diminish the outstanding values for which the river is designated.

Water resource projects above and below a designated reach are common. In fact, there are many designated reaches that begin just below a federally licensed dam.

Would designation prohibit future dams, diversions, or water development projects within designated segments?

A Wild and Scenic River designation prohibits the licensing of hydroelectric projects on a designated reach and assisting any federal water development project that has a direct and adverse effect on the designated segment.

How does Wild and Scenic designation affect public access to rivers for fishing, hunting, camping, and other forms of recreation?

Designation has no effect on fishing and hunting, as those activities are regulated under state laws. Wild and Scenic designation neither limits the public from accessing public lands within designated river corridors nor opens private lands to public access.

Is livestock grazing allowed in Wild and Scenic river corridors?

Generally, existing livestock grazing practices and related structures and infrastructure are not affected by designation. The Interagency Guidelines state that agricultural practices should be similar in nature and intensity to those present in the river coordinator at the time of designation. Grazing and other public uses may occur in a WSR corridor if the uses do not adversely impact or otherwise degrade the values for which a river was designated.

Does the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act restrict development on private lands within designated river corridors?

No. Under the Act, the federal government has no authority to regulate or zone private lands. Land use controls on private lands are solely a matter of state and local zoning. Although the Act includes provisions encouraging the protection of river values through state and local land use planning, there are no binding provisions on local governments.

Is WSR designation likely to cause changes in property values?

WSR designations generally cause property values to remain stable or increase.

Would designation provide a litigation standing in that WSR could create a federal nexus for in stream flows?

Wild and Scenic River litigation is rare. American Rivers has compiled a database of the history of Wild and Scenic River related litigation for the nearly 300 segments of designated rivers in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System and this 50-year history is not consistent with these concerns. Water resource projects above and below a designated reach are common. In fact, there are many designated reaches that begin just below a federally licensed dam.

How does WSR designation affect mining operations on federal lands?

Federal lands within the boundaries of designated river areas (one-quarter mile from the bank on each side of the river) classified as wild are withdrawn under mining and mineral leasing laws. Federal lands within the boundaries of designated river areas classified as scenic or recreational are not withdrawn under the Act from mining and mineral leasing laws.

Existing valid claims or leases within the river boundary remain in effect, and activities may be allowed subject to regulations that minimize surface disturbance, water sedimentation, pollution, and visual impairment. Reasonable access to mining claims and mineral leases is permitted. Mining claims, subject to valid existing rights, can be patented only as to the mineral
estate and not the surface estate, subject to proof of discovery prior to the effective date of designation.

Federal agency management:

Federal agencies are required to manage to protect the river and its values once designated but generally enforcement is not a significant additional burden on the agencies or staff, especially if the river is already recognized by the agency as high value. Additionally, local stakeholders and groups can assist agency staff in a stewardship model that provides a great opportunity for public and private partnerships.