By the 1960s, it was becoming clear that our national policies and attitudes towards rivers were creating a crisis. Industrial and municipal pollution was depriving entire river systems of life. Pesticides were pouring in virtually unchecked. Rivers were being dammed, dredged, diked, diverted and degraded at an alarming rate. Legislation, such as the Clean Water Act, began to stem the chemical flow. To lend balance to our history of physically altering our waterways, Congress created the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. In October of 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act pronounced:
It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments, possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations. The Congress declares that the established national policy of dams and other construction at appropriate sections of the rivers of the United States needs to be complemented by a policy that would preserve other selected rivers or sections thereof in their free-flowing condition to protect the water quality of such rivers and to fulfill other vital national conservation purposes.
Designating a river as “wild and scenic” does not halt use of a river; instead, the goal is to preserve the character of a river. Uses compatible with the management goals of a particular river are allowed; change is expected to happen. However, development must ensure the river’s free flow and protect its “outstandingly remarkable resources.” The intent of Congress was to create a national system of protected rivers that co-existed with use and appropriate development. Each river designation is different, and each management plan is unique. Over 156 rivers in the U.S. have been given the Wild and Scenic designation.
The first rivers designated were primarily in the western US. Oregon has the most rivers designated (47), including the spectacular Klamath River. Alaska has the most miles designated (3,210), including such rivers of the imagination as the Yukon. Idaho has some of our most celebrated wild rivers—the Salmon, Snake, and Selway, among others. These rivers flow primarily through federally-owned lands and management is relatively straightforward.
More recently, a new model of management has emerged on rivers in the eastern part of the country, known as “Partnership” Wild and Scenic Rivers. Here, rivers flow through a landscape with a myriad of landowners so management must rely more on partnerships between the various interested and affected parties. The Farmington River in Connecticut, the Lamprey River in New Hampshire, and the Sudbury, Assabet and Concord Rivers are managed in this way. Learn more about Partnership Wild and Scenic Rivers.
Authority and responsibility under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act
Section 7 of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act states that no department or agency of the US government shall recommend authorization of a water resources project that would have a direct and adverse effect on the values for which a Wild and Scenic river was designated. This Section provides the authority for the administering agency, in this case the National Park Service, in partnership with the River Stewardship Council (RSC), to review federal projects on and along the designated segment to ensure that they meet this standard. To date, a federal water resources project had been interpreted to mean a project on or along the river that requires a federal permit (e.g., wastewater discharge permit, dredge and fill permit) and/or has received federal funds to support the project.
Additionally, the National Park Service, in partnership with the RSC, is more broadly responsible for the protection of the outstanding resource values of the river. Section 10 (a) of the Act states: “In such administration primary emphasis shall be given to protecting its aesthetic, scenic, historic, archaeologic, and scientific features. Management plans for any such component may establish varying degrees of intensity for its protection and development, based on the special attributes of the area.” Guided by the River Conservation Plan, the National Park Service and the RSC work to advise, educate and advocate for the river with local citizens, in the community and at the state and federal level.
Learn more about National Wild and Scenic Rivers.
Designation of Sudbury, Assabet and Concord Rivers in 1999
In April 1999 Congress designated 29 miles of the Sudbury, Assabet, and Concord Rivers as Wild and Scenic. The designated reach includes: the 14.9-mile segment of the Sudbury River beginning at the Danforth Street Bridge in Framingham, downstream to the Route 2 bridge in Concord, and the 1.7-mile segment of the Sudbury River from the Route 2 bridge downstream to its confluence with the Assabet River at Egg Rock; the 4.4-mile segment of the Assabet River beginning 1,000 feet downstream from the Damonmill Dam in West Concord, to its confluence with the Sudbury River at Egg Rock in Concord; and the 8-mile segment of the Concord River from Egg Rock at the confluence of the Sudbury and Assabet Rivers downstream to the Route 3 bridge in Billerica.
“This Act recognizes 29 free-flowing miles of these three rivers for their outstanding ecology, history, scenery, recreation values, and place in American literature. Located about 25 miles west of Boston, the rivers are remarkably undeveloped and provide recreational opportunities in a natural setting to several million people living in the greater Boston metropolitan area. Ten of the river miles lie within the boundary of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, established to protect the outstanding waterfowl habitat associated with extensive riparian wetlands. Historic sites of national importance, including many in the Minute Man National Historical Park, are located near the rivers in the Town of Concord. Among these is Old North Bridge, site of the revolutionary "Shot Heard 'Round the World." The rivers are featured prominently in the works of nineteenth century authors Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau and have been the subject of ornithological studies since early days of field observation techniques.
Important to the designation of these rivers and their long-term protection is the strong local support and commitment for preservation as expressed by the communities along the river segments. Each of the eight towns along the river segments held Town Meetings regarding the designation of these river segments. Votes at these meetings in support of designation and endorsement of the Sudbury, Assabet and Concord River Conservation Plan were unanimous among the eight towns. The Conservation Plan relies on local and private initiatives to protect the river segments through local zoning and land use controls.
I am pleased to add these 29 miles of the Sudbury, Assabet, and Concord Rivers to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. I commend the elected officials and people of Massachusetts who worked so diligently on the river study, building local support for the wild and scenic river designation and the passage of this legislation.”
From President Bill Clinton's April 9, 1999 signing statement.
Background of Sudbury, Assabet and Concord Rivers designation
Local and state interest in a national Wild and Scenic river study was originally precipitated in the mid 1980s by proposals to reactivate the Sudbury Reservoir in Framingham in order to supply water to the Boston metropolitan area. It was feared that withdrawals from the reservoir would create major impacts on downstream areas, including prime wildlife habitat within the wetlands of Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. At the same time, surging real estate values in the rivers’ shoreline communities triggered concerns about the impacts of accelerating urbanization on the rivers’ irreplaceable natural and cultural resources. These resources had so far been well preserved since they were described by Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau over a century ago. A Wild and Scenic River Study was suggested to document these resources and to explore protection options.
In the late 1980s, an informal study group was organized by Sudbury Valley Trustees, Organization for the Assabet River (now OARS), and other conservation interests. The group requested technical assistance from the National Park Service to evaluate the potential for a Wild and Scenic River Study.
For the next two years, the informal study group worked to heighten local awareness of the rivers and succeeded in acquiring votes in favor of the wild and scenic study in each of the eight towns in the study area. Once local support became obvious, Congressman Chet Atkins filed the study authorization bill which was made into law on November 28, 1990.
The Sudbury, Assabet and Concord Wild and Scenic River Study Act (P.L. 101-628) directed the National Park Service to study a 29-mile segment of the rivers for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. It also authorized the establishment of a federal advisory committee to work with the NPS in conducting the study, determining whether the rivers were suitable for designation, and in formulating recommendations for their future management.
The completed study and consensus-building within the communities bordering the rivers resulted in the federal designation of the Sudbury, Assabet and Concord Wild and Scenic Rivers in 1999.
View the Study Report.