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Wyden, Merkley announce scaled-down bill to designate 3,215 miles of Oregon streams Wild and Scenic


'River Democracy Act' attracts support; earlier proposal tallied 4,700 miles

WASHINGTON (KTVZ) – Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., announced Tuesday a revised, scaled-down River Democracy Act they said reflects input from communities across Oregon over the past year and trims by nearly 1,500 miles the stretches of rivers and streams that would be added to the national Wild and Scenic Rivers system.

The total mileage of rivers and streams in the revised bill is approximately 3,215 miles (you can view all of the updated maps here), compared to 4,700 miles in the original bill.

“This bill is called the River Democracy Act for a reason, namely that Oregonians’ nominations of rivers and streams drove this landmark legislation and that it fulfills my commitment to keep collecting input from communities across our state,” Wyden said. “This fresh bill provides a fresh start that builds on the progress already made to protect Oregon’s waterways, reduce wildfire dangers, improve drinking water and expand recreation opportunities that support rural jobs and economies.” 

“Oregon’s rivers and streams are some of the most special natural treasures our state has to offer, and have always been integral to the health and vitality of our communities and rural economies,” said Merkley. “By expanding Wild and Scenic designations, we can protect the health of these delicate ecosystems and high-quality water resources, all while increasing wildfire resilience and bolstering our recreation economy.”

"Senator Wyden continues to center democracy in his River Democracy Act legislation to protect Wild & Scenic Rivers in Oregon. First in the nomination process, and now through this updated version of the bill addressing feedback, Senator Wyden sought information and listened to people," said Yamhill County Commissioner and family farmer Casey Kulla. "The more streams that can be protected by this bill the better it will be for clean water, fish, recreation, and wildlife."

“The waterways within the Nez Perce homeland hold particular significance for our people so the opportunity to provide additional protections is very important. The Tribe was pleased to be able to participate in the development of the River Democracy Act and believe this legislation is a positive step towards that goal,” said Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee Chairman Samuel N. Penney.

“We are grateful for Senator Wyden’s work to gather input as he developed this legislation over the last several years,” said Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) Chair Kat Brigham. “The CTUIR remains committed to working in partnership with other sovereign resource co-managers and neighboring stakeholders, to preserve, protect, and restore vital river habitats so critical to the health and sustainability of fish and wildlife and the Pacific Northwest environment for future generations.”

“Our Oregon rivers are so magical and so special; I really came to love them living here,” said Black Earth United (Portland, Ore.) founder Jocelyn Rice. “It was so beautiful to read and to learn that Sen. Wyden had really taken a lot of community input and it helped design this beautiful bill.”

The River Democracy Act builds on legislation Congress passed in 2019 that added more than 250 miles of Wild and Scenic rivers in Oregon. The state now has 2,173 miles designated in the Wild and Scenic Rivers system, but that total remains only a small fraction of Oregon’s 110,994 miles of rivers and streams. Oregon’s rivers and streams fuel outdoor recreation, an economic engine in Oregon. According to the Outdoor Recreation Industry, outdoor recreation supports 224,000 jobs and generates $15.6 billion in consumer spending. 

The River Democracy Act:

  1. Designates approximately 3,215 miles of rivers in all corners of Oregon as “Wild and Scenic Rivers” to expand recreation access and boost local economies, protect drinking water for families, reduce wildfire threats, and sustain endangered fish and wildlife species;
  2. Requires federal land managers to assess wildfire risks in Wild and Scenic River corridors, implement a plan to reduce wildfire risks to homes and businesses near Wild and Scenic Rivers, assist local governments mitigate wildfire risks and restore water quality should a fire strike near a Wild and Scenic River;
  3. Encourages federal land managers to develop river management plans in collaboration with Native American tribes and ensures Native American tribes have a voice in how rivers are managed; and 
  4. Ensures that only federal lands are affected by Wild and Scenic designations, while protecting private property rights, water rights and existing permits and rights of way on federal lands. 

At a hearing on the River Democracy Act last year, Jennifer Eberlin, National Forest System Associate Deputy Chief at the U.S. Forest Service, affirmed that the bill gives federal agencies the flexibility to mitigate fire risks, allow for continued livestock grazing, respond to wildfires and help restore watersheds and infrastructure should a fire strike. Click here to watch the exchange. 

Updated maps can be found here.

Updated legislative text can be found here.

"As a guide and farmer, I understand the importance of our public lands and waters. I support strong protections for those values," said Adam McGrath, Wallowa County.

“Senator Wyden and his team made a concerted effort to address impacts on utility assets in the River Democracy Act. We appreciate the opportunity to review the new version addressing our concerns and their willingness to continue to work with us,” said Pacific Power Hydro Environmental Manager for Renewable Energy Development Steve Albertelli.

"The Conservation Alliance and our 270 member companies are strong supporters of the River Democracy Act," said The Conservation Alliance Vice President for Public Affairs Shoren Brown. "We applaud Senator Ron Wyden's effort to advance this legislation. Protecting rivers and fresh water is a top priority for the Oregon business community and we believe this visionary bill is good for our communities and our economy.”

"We appreciate Senator Wyden’s ongoing commitment to protecting Oregon’s rivers, clean water, wildlife, and outdoor recreation opportunities through the Oregon River Democracy Act," said Oregon Wild Wilderness Program Manager Erik Fernandez. "While it is difficult to see any stream segments dropped, we applaud his effort to address concerns and move the bill forward."

"More than a third of Oregon is high desert and, in this arid environment, every river, stream and creek is integral to healthy watersheds that support hundreds of species of plants and animals," said Oregon Natural Desert Association Executive Director Ryan Houston. "Oregon Natural Desert Association has worked tirelessly for more than 35 years to protect and restore desert waters, and we look forward to continuing to work with Senator Wyden to ensure these vital resources are conserved for generations to come." 

"As a Marine Corps veteran, I'll never stop fighting for the country I love and the values that make it special," said Brock Evans of La Grande, Ore. "Our public lands and wild waters are critical to our way of life here in Northeast Oregon - and I support their strong protection!"

"The River Democracy Act continues the excellent work that Senator Wyden has done to ensure that Oregon’s rivers and fresh waters continue to support the Oregon bioregion now and into future generations," said Ninkasi Brewing Company Founding Brewer Jamie Floyd.

News release from Oregon Wild:

Conservationists Urge Passage of Revised River Democracy Act

Portland, OREGON – Today, Senator Ron Wyden announced an updated version of the Oregon River Democracy Act. The new version of the bill would expand Oregon’s Wild and Scenic Rivers network on public lands by 3,215 miles, protecting drinking water, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreation opportunities across the state, from the desert streams of Owyhee country to the roaring rivers of the Coast Range.

"We appreciate Senator Wyden’s ongoing commitment to protecting Oregon’s rivers, clean water, wildlife, and outdoor recreation opportunities through the Oregon River Democracy Act,” said Erik Fernandez, Wilderness Program Manager for Oregon Wild. “While it is difficult to see any stream segments dropped, we applaud the Senator’s effort to address concerns and move the bill forward."

The original River Democracy Act was introduced in February of 2021 by Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley after a lengthy grassroots river nomination process. Over 15,000 nominations were received from the public. The bill is endorsed by businessesbrewerieswatershed councilsfisheries experts, and community organizations across the state. 

“Every river and waterway included in the original bill is special, important, and deserving of protection. For streams not included in the revised bill, we know those who originally nominated them will be disappointed and that is understandable,” continued Fernandez. “However, the River Democracy Act remains a historic conservation opportunity to protect our drinking water, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreation opportunities.”

Oregon Wild observed that while the original River Democracy Act legislation enjoyed broad public support, Senator Wyden's changes seem to be an effort to address concerns expressed by some Oregon politicians and lobby groups opposed to expanded river and clean water protections.

“This is the River Democracy Act, and democracy itself is messy. Not everyone gets what they want,” said Oregon Wild Conservation Director Steve Pedery. “While not all opposition and criticism of this bill was rooted in good faith, the new legislation should resolve those concerns. Now that this compromise version of the River Democracy Act has been released, we urge Rep. Cliff Bentz to join with Senator Wyden, and the vast majority of Oregonians, and support expanded safeguards for Oregon’s beloved wild and scenic rivers.”

Currently, only 2% of Oregon’s waterways are protected as Wild & Scenic. The River Democracy Act would increase that up to 5% of Oregon’s total river miles.

Article Topic Follows: Government-politics

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