Flowing From Our Wildest Imaginations

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act turns fifty

N.M. 68 to Taos offers numerous pull-offs and vistas of the magnificent Rio Grande as it cuts its way through the terrain of northern New Mexico. Photograph by Sherman Hogue/BLMNM.


My legs dangle over the small bridge as I watch the Rio Chama rushing below, rippling over stones. Over the constant din of the moving water, the leaves of scattered cottonwoods at the river’s edge clap softly with brief bursts of wind. Beyond the banks, a sloping plain rises toward towering cliffs and rock amphitheaters stratified with the reds, yellows, and browns of long-gone geological epochs. Above them on the distant horizon, a spruce- and fir-lined rim separates land from the expansive blue summer sky. I see no other people until several rafts emerge around the willows at the river’s bend. The rafters raise their arms and shout with excitement as they swiftly pass below me. The roar of the river soon drowns out their shouts and I sit alone again, staring at the well-worn stones below the ripples. 

This bridge is at a unique crossroads of two paths—one on land and the other on water—that were both indelibly shaped by two significant acts of Congress that celebrate their fiftieth anniversary this year: the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA) and the National Trails Systems Act. The land route is the Continental Divide Trail, which was designated as a national trail in 1978 under the Trails Act of 1968, and cuts through some of the nation’s most rugged, isolated, and exquisitely beautiful territory from southern New Mexico to northern Montana. The path below me is the section of the Rio Chama that was designated as Scenic (and, just upstream, as Wild) in 1988 under the WSRA.  

Born out of decades-long battles over dam development across the nation, but especially in the West, the WSRA aimed “to protect and enhance” certain segments of “free-flowing” rivers that “possess unique water conservation, scenic, fish, wildlife, and outdoor recreation values of present and potential benefit to the American people.” The act prevented dam construction and certain extractive industries, such as mining or logging, in protected river sections with the goal of forever preserving the nation’s most beautiful rivers. As then-New Mexico Senator Joseph Montoya expressed at the time, “What is really important is that a region of striking natural beauty will be preserved for this generation and all the generations which follow. Without such protection, encroachments by an expanding and sometimes greedy human race are almost inevitable.” Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle voted in favor of this landmark federal protection of rivers. The result has made the past half-century, in the words of Tim Palmer, “America’s richest in river protection.” 

River rafting companies often take their clients to the John Dunn bridge crossing for Rio Grande float trips. Photograph by Sherman Hogue/BLMNM.
N.M. 68 to Taos offers numerous pull-offs and vistas of the magnificent Rio Grande as it cuts its way through the terrain of northern New Mexico. Photograph by Sherman Hogue/BLMNM.
South of El Vado Reservoir, a lone adventurer takes in the Rio Chama, designated a Wild and Scenic River. Photograph by Sherman Hogue/BLMNM.

The bill originally designated eight sections of rivers across the nation as Wild and Scenic. Luckily for New Mexicans, the section of the Rio Grande from the Colorado border to just north of Pilar, along with the first six miles of the Red River that meets the Rio Grande, was among those original eight designations. In subsequent years, the United States Congress has amended the act nearly a hundred times to designate more sections of rivers. To date, 13,000 miles along 208 of our country’s rivers and streams have been designated. In New Mexico, local advocacy groups successfully lobbied congress to designate three other sections of rivers under the act: the Chama River between El Vado and Abiquiu Dams (1988), the East Fork of the Jemez River (1990), and the upper stretches of the Pecos River (1990). 

The WSRA, as then-Senator Stewart Udall explained, was “patterned after the Wilderness Act” of 1964, and prioritized river sections with recreational activities, such as rafting, camping, and fishing, that could spur a tourism economy in the region. The Rio Grande received initial designation in part because of the trout fishery in the Rio Grande Gorge. Although the act focused on recreational concerns, New Mexico senators worked to ensure that agricultural uses, especially cattle-grazing practices along protected waterways, would not be hindered by the legislation. 

The greater Rio Grande in New Mexico and southern Colorado felt the impact of the act almost immediately. In the summer of 1969, a concerted effort among government and citizen groups employed it as one of several tools to successfully block the construction of the proposed Parsons and Whittemore paper pulp mill along the Rio Grande in southern Colorado. Such a plan, many worried, would send effluent from the mill into the sections of the Rio Grande protected under the WSRA. As J. W. Anderson, then the state director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), explained to The Santa Fe New Mexican in 1969, “We look upon the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act as our mandate within the wild rivers areas to insist upon water quality standards set by the state of New Mexico and approved by the secretary of the interior.” After a summer of contentious debate, the backers of the pulp mill ultimately took their plans elsewhere. Had the mill been built, water quality would have undoubtedly declined along northern New Mexico’s stretch of the Rio Grande, from the Gorge to Los Luceros in Alcalde and farther downstream.

While the WSRA continues to serve as a vital protection for New Mexico’s rivers, some river advocates nonetheless express concern that it has not yet been used to its full potential in legal fights to protect rivers. Jen Pelz, the wild rivers program director at WildEarth Guardians, emphasizes that the WSRA explicitly requires the federal agencies with jurisdiction of designated river sections to “protect and enhance the values” that caused those sections to be designated in the first place. This language, Pelz suggests, presents “a possibility to use the act more strongly and to push the agencies to do the work the act demands of them.” As an example, Pelz points to the designated section of the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico, which has recently experienced very low flows largely due to upstream agricultural use in the San Luis Valley. Pelz explained that the act could potentially be used to demand a minimum flow and prevent the river from drying entirely, which would be a benefit for wildlife, recreationists, and agriculturalists throughout northern New Mexico.

Many local environmental advocates today are also careful to note that, although WSRA remains a significant legal protection, the current struggle for comprehensive river protections likely will require further policy work and, ultimately, legislative action. Lifelong conservationist and river outfitter Steve Harris, who helped in efforts to designate the Rio Chama in 1988, says, “A problem with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was that it had a simplistic function that didn’t easily account for the complexities of the river.” The act only protects the surface water and a narrow strip of riparian shoreline of rivers, he explains; but many rivers may suffer from harmful extractive industries, such as fracking, that occur within the watershed well beyond the protected shores of the river. “There has to be something more than an idea of just setting boundaries around a river and protecting it.” Harris suggests that local, state, and federal officials consider creative policy measures such as the establishment of a river’s legal right to water, adopting a human right to twenty liters of water per person per day, and “enshrining a water conservation ethic in the operating rules of water systems and state legal regimes.” 

This need for more far-ranging protections mirrors the contemporary understanding of  rivers as ever-evolving systems that include entire watersheds. The original WSRA viewed river systems as simply the waterway and its nearby shores and embodied now-dated notions of ecological stagnation. “I believe the choice is clear-cut,” Senator Joseph Montoya expressed to his congressional counterparts in 1965. “Either we have a living museum where succeeding generations can see traces of the natural wonders that once laced this whole land of ours together, or the grasping imprint of the hands of … predacious development interests will completely blueprint our river and stream resources.”

Yet, says New Mexico naturalist Jack Loeffler, “We should return some semblance of fluidity to our perception of waterways in our laws and allow them to evolve as a biotic system evolves.” To treat a river as “a living museum,” in other words, only works if we allow for the inevitable, natural changes of an evolving waterway.  

Scholars in recent decades have also reconsidered the notion of “wild.” Even in 1965, as the bill was still being drafted, Senator Udall explained that “in a strict sense, a truly wild river is rare today. The term ‘wild river areas’ is used in the bill in a special sense—to denote those segments of streams, tributaries, or rivers which are in a free-flowing condition, or which can be restored to that condition.” Today, many scholars consider the idea of “wildness” as simply a human idea placed on more-than-human parts of the world rather than an intrinsic quality of the earth. After all, as New Mexico writer William deBuys has pointed out, in the age of anthropogenic climate change, no corner of the Earth, whether from the deepest depths of the ocean to the highest reaches of the atmosphere, has been unaffected in some way by the rising global carbon levels of the past two centuries. 

Despite looking the part, the designated-Wild portion of the Rio Chama in fact possesses some of the most profoundly unwild qualities of any river in the country. This section of river sits between two major dams—Abiquiu and El Vado—and, since the advent of the San Juan Diversion Project, carries water pumped through twenty-six miles of pipe across the Continental Divide to provide for Albuquerque’s growth over a hundred miles downstream. “The Chama is one of the most highly managed and developed rivers in the country,” Harris states matter-of-factly. As William deBuys wryly points out, the Rio Chama “might be wilder in your imagination than it is in fact.”

Yet, as I sit and watch the river descend through the red-rock canyons, bemoaning such human fingerprints on the river seems hardly useful. I find serenity and beauty in this river as it is, and I find myself immensely grateful for the fifty-year-old fingerprint of an unwild regulatory tool designed to maintain its wildness.

The protections of waters under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act are valuable not because they preserve something pristine or primordial, but because they offer vital safeguards against harmful forms of development that would pollute delicate river systems that we rely on for agriculture, drinking water, wildlife forage, and soul-recreating recreation. Though the WSRA neither provides comprehensive watershed protection nor protects all stretches of New Mexico’s waterways (had sections of the Rio Grande between Santa Fe and Albuquerque been designated under the act, for example, the construction of Cochiti Dam would likely never have happened), it nonetheless has been, and remains to be, an important tool for New Mexico river protection. The WSRA deterred development in known instances such as the Parsons and Whittemore pulp mill plans, and potentially many other development projects that never made it beyond the drawing board because of the legislation. As deBuys says eloquently: “Maybe the greatest benefit of the act so far are the battles no one ever had to fight.” 

Fifty years ago, the nation’s political and cultural stars aligned to produce legislation aimed at protecting rivers across the nation. The golden anniversary serves as an important reminder of a collective aspiration for far-reaching river protections that has only partially been fulfilled. As a recently deferred decision by the BLM on whether to lease fracking rights to parcels within the watershed of the Rio Chama suggests, it is likely that further policy measures will ultimately be necessary to fully protect the waters of this Wild and Scenic river. The half-century mark of the WSRA provides an opportunity to not only celebrate the act’s achievements, but also to examine where improvements can be made to ensure that, in another fifty or one hundred years from now, someone can dangle their feet from this same bridge and marvel at the beauty passing below.  

Willy Carleton is an agricultural historian with a PhD in history from the University of New Mexico. He is an editor of edible Santa Fe and depends on the water of the Rio Chama to grow vegetables on his farm in Medanales, New Mexico.