Pacific Rivers celebrates 30th anniversary of the Oregon Omnibus Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

Thirty years ago I was privileged to represent Oregon Rivers Council in Washington, D.C. to help designate 40 of Oregon’s finest rivers to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. A monumental success – still the largest add to the Wild and Scenic program in the lower 48 – that catalyzed the state’s first river protection group and organized a new army of volunteers willing to commit hard work and money to river protection.

Sponsored by Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, Sen. Robert Packwood and Rep. Denny Smith, and pushed hard by Rep. Les AuCoin, (then) Rep. Ron Wyden and Rep. Peter DeFazio, S.2148 was a priority for Oregon’s powerful delegation. In just a few months (though in D.C. time it felt like a decade!) nearly 1,500 miles of Oregon rivers were protected. Oregon now has about 1,900 Wild and Scenic miles, California about the same, Washington a paltry 197 miles, Idaho less than 900 miles and Montana less than 370 miles.

In the 30th anniversary year of the Oregon Omnibus Bill, I’ve recently joined the Pacific Rivers board of directors. As I come full circle, I see our rivers and our work through a new and more expansive lens.

When the ORC transitioned to Pacific Rivers, it was recognized that the science of how rivers live and breathe is at odds with protections of river segments only. In 1988 we scored big in keeping major new dams off the new Wild and Scenic segments and I remember well that there would likely be dams on the Grande Ronde and Wallowa rivers if not for our work. But we did not finish the job of protecting and restoring rivers. We protected many, though not all, of the best and now we need to protect and fix the rest!

As I reflect back, I now see an important lesson from what was otherwise a taciturn, eleventh hour tactical move by Sen. Hatfield and Rep. AuCoin. As the 100th Congress drew to a close, to blunt opposition to S.2148 from eastern Oregon Rep. Bob Smith, the Senate attached to the Wild and Scenic bill a wholly unrelated bill – the Umatilla (River) Basin Project Act. Rep. Smith supported the Umatilla bill as a favor to his irrigation constituents. But to get it he now had to swallow 40 new Wild and Scenic rivers.

Joining the Umatilla and Wild and Scenic rivers bills I see today as an unintended lesson in river protection and restoration. Our Wild and Scenic bill protected unspoiled, highly valued river segments. The Umatilla bill took on the mechanical fixes needed to restore stream flows in northeast Oregon’s lower Umatilla River – a river desert, completely dewatered by federal-sponsored irrigation. For virtually every river segment designated Wild and Scenic there is another segment that needs major restoration work to achieve watershed health. We designated the beautiful segments but we didn’t understand how damaging were the landscape scale impacts of clear-cutting, roads, river channelization and scalping off riparian vegetation.

Another thing we didn’t understand well in 1988 was tribes – the original owners and managers of these same watersheds. Fortunately Sen. Hatfield and Rep. AuCoin did! Both the Wild and Scenic and Umatilla bills included language to honor the federal reserved treaty rights of tribes. S.2148 contains lengthy sections about protecting tribal rights and interests. The Umatilla Basin Project bill, though couched as a ‘Reclamation Act’ project, was in fact restitution for the Umatilla tribes to restore lower river stream flows that has since allowed the tribes to recover their treaty-guaranteed salmon runs. (In an ironic and, for me fortuitous, twist of fate I left the Oregon Rivers Council in 1989 to work for the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla and was tasked first with implementing the Umatilla Basin Project Act).

Today, with my colleagues on the Pacific Rivers board, we are using lessons learned to move to the next horizons of healthy watersheds. We are diversifying our Board to be more representative of the people of our watersheds. To achieve our mission for clean water and healthy watersheds we are leaping beyond river segments to work at watershed scale. Tribal scientists call this “gravel to gravel” management, a recognition that salmon require clean, healthy spawning gravels and healthy rivers to migrate to and from the ocean. Healthy watersheds spawn from healthy forests and agricultural lands, the removal of many dams, and where dams are needed, a radical change in their operations.

Have you seen A River’s Last Chance – California’s spectacular Eel River cry for help? Did you catch Behind the Emerald Curtain, our eye-popping film that exposes Oregon’s private timber laws that promote the watershed scale clear cuts and the naked soil mountains that you now know as the coast range? Do you know Pacific Rivers is fighting to put “watershed” and “river ecosystem” into the U.S. – Canada Columbia River Treaty? Are you with the Montanan’s that are fighting for new Wild and Scenic rivers? Log on to pacificrivers.org to find out and do more.

Pacific Rivers, like a watershed, is a work in-progress. We need you to join us, contribute, support our work – and inspire us. If you’re a member please consider an even more generous gift. If you’re not a member of Pacific Rivers – wont’ you please join us? Thank you!

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