Boyd C. Allen

Tim Palmer, an award-winning author of 26 books about rivers, conservation and adventure presented “Wild and Scenic Rivers” (An American Legacy) Aug. 24 in Gold Beach.

The presentation, like his book of the same title, covered the history and importance of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA) and was the main event in a 50th anniversary celebration of the act.

The act, signed into law on Oct. 2, 1968, “declared it 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 Rogue was one of the original eight rivers protected. Locally, the Chetco, Smith, Elk and Eel rivers have been added since. In fact, according to Palmer, Oregon, with more than 50 wild and scenic rivers, leads the nation.

Palmer’s presentation began with the movie “Protected: A Wild and Scenic River Portrait” which details river journeys taken by Palmer and his wife, Ann Vileisis.

Vileisis, an historian and author, met Palmer when she was a whitewater guide, and as the movie illustrates, the two have been married to the rivers as well as each other since.

Palmer began work on the rivers at Penn State as a landscape architecture student in 1980. He contributed to an analysis of Pine Creek, which later became protected as a Pennsylvania wild and scenic river.

He said now, “at the 50th anniversary, is the perfect time to look at those protected rivers and more rivers that should be protected.”

The biggest threat to the rivers at the time, according to Palmer was dams; the U.S. built 70,000 dams during the early 20th century and 10,000 more were planned. Dams in the eastern U.S. had already destroyed the Atlantic salmon fishery and would have done the same damage on the West Coast.

In his book, he credits the Craighead brothers for fighting a dam on the Spruce River with beginning the fight to protect rivers.

John and Frank Craighead grew up near the Potomac but moved west where they pioneered the modern age of wildlife biology. However, years after they had moved west, they returned home and saw the Potomac. Dams were proposed and the river had been polluted by strip mining.

They returned west and soon found themselves fighting against the plan for the Spruce Park Dam on the Middle Fork Flathead in Montana. However, they were unsure whether protections would continue or be extended to other rivers without a program.

Impetus for a wild rivers program had begun though, and it was carried through and passage secured by Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. The country has been adding rivers to the list since.

The great threat to the rivers now, according to Palmer, is global warming or climate change. The warming of the earth is warming the ice-melt water that feeds western rivers and destroying fish habitat.

“Native fish need cold water,” he said. “And now there is also the threat of rivers being removed from protection.”

A week prior to his presentation, Palmer was with Vileisis and they were traveling to backpack to Young’s Peak, an area above the Smith River.

Palmer has written about the West, logging and fires in books such as “Pacific High, adventures in the Coast Ranges from Baja to Alaska.”

He was worried about the fires and smoke on this hike.

“For people who want to live out of town, fire has become a constant concern. The government doesn’t have the money to protect them,” he said, “yet more and more people are moving into the rural-wilderness interface.”

Palmer said, as a landscape architect, he has seen the land change.

“There have been dramatic changes,” he said. “Fires have changed the landscape drastically. Invasive weeds, droughts and floods lead to remarkable changes, and they should lead to dramatic changes in the way we deal with them, but we lag behind.”

He recommended recognizing the ways rules and natural laws are changing and accommodating those changes in our public and private decisions.

“You can’t allow development on the flood plain, and you can’t develop in rural areas that are prone to fires, but we do,” Palmer said. “And if we do, we can’t expect to be protected.”

He fears the recent support for mining in Washington will harm the rivers he loves.

“Multi-year proposals supported by thousands of people speaking against mining were protecting the rivers,” he said. “And now one legislator from Utah sends a letter to the Department of the Interior, and they rescind mining exclusions –– outrageous.”

River trips on overnights are key, according to Palmer.

“They immerse people in these places –– day and night. Being on a river that’s wild and natural creates an unparalleled connection.”

And yet, he says, dams still threaten these rivers, and mining would be an absolute disaster.

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