Several notable birthdays were observed on October 2. In political and human rights circles, Mahatma Gandhi was remembered. In the music industry, Sting turned 67. TV host Kelly Ripa turned 48. Portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz celebrated her 69th birthday. And across the country, river enthusiasts commemorated the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which was signed into law on that day 50 years ago.
Back in 1968, Congress passed this legislation to preserve river sections that have outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values, making sure that they would continue in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.
These rivers are a select bunch: Out of about 3.6 million miles of U.S. streams and rivers in the United States, less than 13,000 miles of waterways, including sections of 495 named rivers and tributaries, are protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
FIFTY YEARS LATER
Fifty years ago, the U.S. population was just over 200 million. Today, it’s more than 326 million.
As more and more people use designated rivers and push human development closer to public lands, river management gets increasingly complicated. River managers often must balance values related to irrigation, recreation, hydropower, livestock grazing, and cultural or spiritual uses while coping with invasive species, uncharacteristic fire, declining land management budgets, increased recreational use, and a changing climate.
As these cultural and environmental “stressors” become more widespread, there is momentum to designate and protect rivers today, a process that requires extensive evaluation.
This is why scientists at the Rocky Mountain Research Station are collaborating with managers of several protected rivers. One of these scientists, Alan Watson, is planning to help river managers develop new, comprehensive river management plans for two designated rivers: the Eleven Point River in Missouri and the Flathead River in Montana.
These research projects may serve as blueprints for conducting river research around the United States and other countries. For example, Alan is collaborating with the Wildland Research Institute of the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, as well as with the National Natural Science Foundation of China.
Q METHODOLOGY AND RIVER RESEARCH
Watson, a social scientist for the Rocky Mountain Research Station and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute in Missoula, Montana, is using a technique called Q Methodology to study river users’ relationships with the Flathead River and threats to those relationships.
This information is important in future adaptation planning to protect these relationships as other factors change. Invented in 1935, Q methodology focuses on personal feelings, perspectives and opinions. (In comparison, R methodology focuses on objective data, or hard facts.) Q methodology questions use something called a Q sort technique, in which research participants rank-order statements based on how much they “agree” or “disagree” about important benefits from the river.
According to Nancy Grulke, director of the Western Wildland Environmental Threats Assessment Center, “Q-methodology is more than a user satisfaction study. It gets to the issue of how people value specific natural resources and why. It also validates users and their concerns in an egalitarian way: It’s not just listening to the loudest voice in the room.”
ADDRESSING CHALLENGES AT THE ELEVEN POINT RIVER
The Eleven Point River — more specifically, 44.4 miles of the river’s 138-mile length — was one of the first eight rivers to be designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The river, which originates in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains and runs through the Mark Twain National Forest, is known for fishing, canoeing and dispersed camping, and it borders a mix of public and private land. From the late 1930s through the mid-1960s, dams and recreation area designations alike were considered and opposed. In 1968, the Act finally defined conservation goals for part of the river. In recent years, Eleven Point River managers have faced challenges related to increasing visitation, increasingly variable water levels and public access.
According to Watson, the Leopold Institute’s planned work on this river reflects a commitment to comprehensive river management planning. “This scenic river segment of this river is a heavily used recreation resource,” he explains, adding, “We’re researching outstandingly remarkable values and threats to these values, with user capacities and monitoring data to be folded into the river plan.”
It’s a welcome effort, according to Ed Sherman, recreation manager for the Mark Twain National Forest. He explains, “Our management plan’s last signature was in 1974, so we’re talking dusty archives. It’s such a large time gap that we’re looking for updated information on things like visitor satisfaction, perceived solitude, and adequacy of Forest Services facilities and management. I get wonderful feedback but I have no hard data to back it up. We’re working with Alan and the University of Missouri to develop questionnaires to quantify some of our unanswered questions.”
THE FLATHEAD: WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
The Middle Fork of the Flathead River is a relative newcomer to the Wild and Scenic Rivers program, having been designated in 1976. However, in many ways, this river’s connection to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act runs much deeper.
Back in the 1950s, part of the river’s South Fork was dammed, helping to drive industrial capacity and economic growth across the northwestern United States. Over the next few years, developers began to consider dams for the Flathead’s Middle and North Forks. A local conservationist and University of Montana professor named John Craighead took several Flathead float trips and, after considering what might be lost, championed the idea of protecting rivers with outstandingly remarkable values. With support from other locals, including John’s twin brother, Frank, this concept helped lead to the Act’s creation in 1968.
Eight years later, more than 200 miles of the river were designated. According to Watson, “The Craighead brothers had a great argument: They pointed out that we were building all these dams and there are places where we probably shouldn’t. They said that keeping the landscape intact may be more valuable to future generations than water storage or hydroelectric generation.”
WILDERNESS OR PLAYGROUND?
Today, the Flathead faces looming challenges related to a warming climate and changing land uses, complicated by a mix of private, state-managed and federally managed lands along its banks. According to Chris Prew, the Flathead National Forest’s recreation manager, “We’re located just south of Glacier National Park, which breaks attendance records every year. There’s also a lot of local population growth. We’re not hitting major issues yet, but the Park managers are talking about hitting capacity and turning people away. When that happens, those people are likely to spill into the Flathead National Forest.”
By working with Alan Watson, Flathead National Forest managers hope to improve user-monitoring efforts, with a broader goal of conserving the river and nearby wilderness areas. Prew explains, “The Upper Middle Fork and the South Fork both start in the middle of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, which is one of the biggest wilderness areas in the lower 48 states. There’s more dispersed recreation happening here than our original management plan projected. There’s also rising demand for whitewater rafting, kayaking and fishing.”
Using Q methodology and related analysis from 2018 through 2021, Watson and Flathead River managers are collaborating to revise Flathead River management plans, for use by National Forest Planners, river managers and rangers, local communities and Native American tribes. According to Prew, “By collaborating with stakeholders, we need to find out what people are looking for in terms of things like user capacity, desired conditions and development of land and facilities.”
PRESERVING AND RESTORING NATIVE AQUATIC SPECIES
Other Rocky Mountain Research Station scientists are watching Wild and Scenic Rivers closely, but from a different perspective. Idaho-based fisheries research scientist Russ Thurow and his collaborators are taking advantage of past Wild and Scenic Rivers conservation efforts to study aquatic species in protected wilderness areas, including the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho.
The largest contiguous federally managed wilderness in the United States outside of Alaska, “the Frank” is the home of the Salmon River, two segments of which are designated as Wild and Scenic. The river’s Middle Fork was one of the original eight rivers to be designated under the Act. It’s been called the “crown jewel” of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System and is considered by many to be the finest whitewater trip in North America.
“The Frank is a unique area,” Thurow says, explaining, “Because of its size, remote location and protected status, natural process that create habitat for a variety of native aquatic and terrestrial species function relatively unimpeded by human interventions.”
Thurow goes on to say, “Many of the fish populations that can be found here, especially wild Chinook salmon, are very rare. For example, just 4 percent of the historical spring and summer Chinook salmon habitat in the Columbia River Basin supports wild, indigenous fish. Elsewhere, wild fish have been extirpated or genetically altered. Today, wild Chinook salmon populations in the Frank are at about 2 percent of their historical levels, primarily as a result of factors outside of the Salmon River Basin.”
Thurow reports that, in collaboration with a variety of state, tribal and federal biologists, “Collectively, we’ve assembled more than 60 years of population data for wild Chinook salmon, and we’re also investigating genetic and demographic population structure, movements, and potential effects of a changing climate.”
Thurow explains some interesting research results that may help in developing more effective Chinook salmon restoration efforts: “The rule for salmon is ‘high fidelity’ — returning to the very riffle where they emerged from the gravel years earlier. However, natural processes in the Frank create a dynamic environment, with fires, intense storms, and debris flows or snow avalanches depositing wood and sediment into streams and rearranging habitats. But we’ve found that at least a portion of the salmon population seems to be opportunistic and taking advantage of new spawning areas. Even at current, very low population levels, wild Chinook salmon are displaying a high level of adaptability and resiliency.”
THE NEXT 50 YEARS
Looking forward to the next 50 years, there’s hope that research will have an active role in river management. According to Steve Chesterton, the wild and scenic rivers program manager for the Forest Service’s Washington Office, “We’ve learned a lot about these rivers over the years, but we’ve also come to realize how much we don’t know. Not only do we want to raise awareness of these resources, but there’s much that needs to be pursued about how effective we’ve been in accomplishing management goals across each designated river and more broadly the health of all our rivers and watersheds.” Considering the 50thanniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Watson says, “It’s a great time for reflection but it’s also a time for action. We’ve assembled a broad interest community to support protection of river systems; I hope we see a lot more river research in the next few years.”