Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


In 1968 the U.S. Congress created the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Intended to protect selected rivers exhibiting "outstandingly remarkable" values, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act declared, "the established national policy of dam and other construction . . . needs to be complemented by a policy that would preserve other selected rivers . . . in their free-flowing condition to protect the water quality . . . and to fulfill other vital conservation purposes." Federal agencies and others involved in river conservation have long debated whether the intent of Congress was to establish a system that would protect only a few "crown jewel" rivers, or whether rivers representing all physiographic regions of the country and all various river types should be included. Whatever the congressional intent, what cannot be overlooked is that few of the rivers of the Great Plains have received this unique protection since 1968. Through 1998, only parts of three rivers–the Upper Missouri in Montana, the Missouri between South Dakota and Nebraska, and the Niobrara in Nebraska–have been included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

This lack of wild and scenic river designations is an indicator of socioeconomic values rather than a reflection on the quality of rivers in the Great Plains. Wild and scenic rivers tend to be concentrated in areas where there is a great deal of public land–for example, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest–where concerns over impacts on private lands are less pronounced. This is not to say, however, that rivers of the Great Plains are less deserving of inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. In January 1982, the National Park Service released the Nationwide Rivers Inventory that identified rivers that, at first inspection, were potentially eligible for designation. Through this and subsequent revisions, more than fifty rivers within the Great Plains have been identified as deserving further study or consideration as wild and scenic rivers.

The designated wild and scenic rivers in the Great Plains, and those listed on the Nationwide Rivers Inventory, are generally characterized by abundant plant and animal species diversity due to the presence of water and travel corridors. Humans were also drawn to Great Plains rivers: the designated rivers have important cultural and historical significance, such as the route of Lewis and Clark along the Missouri River and the cultural landscape of ranching along the Niobrara River. It should be noted, however, that human impacts are not readily apparent within the designated boundaries of these rivers; they were designated in large part because they represent presettlement conditions.

Canada also has a national rivers program. Established in 1984, the Canadian Heritage Rivers System is a cooperative program, developed and run by the federal, provincial, and territorial governments. As established, the program has little regulatory authority, instead relying on the foresight and good intentions of the involved governments. The objectives of the program are to give national recognition to Canada's outstanding rivers and to ensure long-term management and conservation of their natural, cultural, historical, and recreational values. None of the Prairie Provinces' rivers has received Heritage River designation to date.

See also PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT: Niobrara Ecotone.

Dan Haas National Park Service

Coyle, Kevin J. The American Rivers Guide to Wild and Scenic River Designation: A Primer on National River Conservation. Washington DC: American Rivers, 1988.

Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council. Wild and Scenic Rivers Reference Guide. Washington DC: U.S. Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, 1997.

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