U.S. Senate ‘Wild & Scenic’ Bill Makes Oregon Vulnerable to More Wildfire and Smoke

Oregon would be less safe from wildfire and smoke under congressional legislation to restrict forest thinning and management activities on approximately 3 million acres of federal lands under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, according to testimony from the American Forest Resource Council (AFRC).

The bill, S.192, is co-sponsored by Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and received a hearing today in the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee.

Proponents claim the bill would add nearly 4,700 miles of Oregon “rivers” to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.  However, an initial review of the legislation by AFRC found that the authors of the bill only classify 15 percent of the proposed segments as rivers, most are streams, gulches and unnamed tributaries. Several of those classifications were verified by AFRC field staff.

 No detailed 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.

A “river” in Southern Oregon proposed for Wild & Scenic designation under S.192.

AFRC says S.192 would make active forest management, firefighting and public access more difficult on approximately three million acres of federal land.  That is because the legislation adds additional regulations to designated “buffers” on federal lands, tying the hands of land managers who are already facing a potentially disastrous wildfire season this year.

“Oregon is staring at another dangerous and devastating wildfire season, and this bill would make forest management more difficult and federal lands less safe to nearby communities,” said AFRC President Travis Joseph.  “At a time when California and Washington are increasing and expanding wildfire prevention efforts, it’s unfathomable Oregon’s elected officials would make fuels reduction and other management activities more difficult across three million acres of federal lands, much of which is at risk of catastrophic fire.”

“As we witnessed last year, catastrophic wildfires including erosion and sedimentation pose the greatest threat to watersheds and rivers. Arbitrary restrictive land designations only tend to impede public lands access and the most important work needed to reduce wildfire risks and impacts.  The U.S. Senate should reject this misguided bill and focus on keeping Oregonians safe from wildfires and smoke that are threatening communities and public health.”

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.” Over the past 53 years, 1,916 miles of Oregon rivers have been designed as Wild & Scenic.

S.192 violates the spirit of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act because it bypasses a mechanism for robust study and review of proposed waterways to immediately add an additional 4,700 miles.  If such studies were conducted, many areas included in S. 192 would likely be found ineligible or unsuitable for designation.

Another “river” in Southern Oregon proposed for Wild & Scenic designation under S.192.

Of the 886 segments proposed for inclusion, 752 are identified as streams, rather than rivers. Additionally, there are 33 segments identified as “gulches” and one “draw.” And finally, there are 17 segments that have not been named and are listed as “unnamed tributary.” That leaves only 15 percent of the segments proposed as Wild and Scenic that are actually classified as rivers.

“We do not oppose Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and designation of rivers that are thoroughly studied and determined to have outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values,” Joseph said.  “Unfortunately, this bill only serves to make management of federal lands more restrictive at a time we are experiencing larger and more severe wildfires.”