A proposed 4,700 miles of protected rivers and streams in the River Democracy Act are located across Oregon. (Wyden.Senate.gov

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February 4, 2021

PORTLAND, Ore. — New legislation in Congress would protect rivers Oregonians have identified as their most cherished.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., released the River Democracy Act on Wednesday.

After hearing from nearly 2,500 Oregonians about which rivers they want protected, the bill would give 4,700 miles of rivers and streams across Oregon a Wild and Scenic River designation.

Chad Brown, president and founder of the group Soul River, and a Navy veteran, said Oregon’s rivers are places where people can recharge.

“The river’s a special place,” Brown maintained. “And it’s definitely a place of medicine, of natural medicine, that we all need to enrich our soul, our mind, our body and our spirit.”

Brown noted rivers help him and other veterans cope, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

About 2 percent of Oregon’s waterways are currently protected as Wild and Scenic. Wyden’s office received more than 15,000 nominations for river miles across the state.

Opponents of Wild and Scenic designations worry it could impact industry along rivers and streams.

Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, said the bill bodes well for protecting salmon and steelhead, and boosting the state’s outdoor recreation sector, which generates $15.6 billion dollars in consumer spending, and is a boon for rural economies.

Hamilton added Wyden has worked on protecting Oregon rivers for decades, and the state could sustain more recreation.

“Our industry in particular has learned that there’s not enough public spaces for people,” Hamilton argued. “The access has been crowded, and the need for more public space is really clear to us through this pandemic.”

Hamilton also noted the bill would help protect clean sources of water, especially from wildfire risks.
The legislation ensures only federal lands are affected by Wild and Scenic designations and Native American tribes have a voice in how rivers are managed.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.