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American Rivers: Celebrating 40 Years

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Recently, at a dinner celebrating the 40th anniversary of American Rivers, I conducted an armchair conversation with three of our founders, Brent Blackwelder, Charles Clusen, and Rafe Pomerance (Watch the full conversation).  It was fascinating to hear what inspired these three men, along with other dedicated conservationists, to come together in March 1973 in Denver, Colorado to create a new national voice for river conservation.

As our founders described it, forty years ago the nation was still hellbent on damming and diverting every remaining free-flowing river.  Indeed, there were grandiose plans to transform the nation’s river, the Potomac, into a series of reservoirs stretching from West Virginia to Washington, D.C. to address what, in hindsight, were overblown predictions of flooding and water shortages.  Had those plans come to fruition, reservoirs would have drowned the world-class whitewater cataracts of Great Falls National Park just outside the Nation’s Capital, as well as the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers at Harper’s Ferry, a view which Thomas Jefferson once described as “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature.”

Also forty years ago, the landmark legislation known as the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was still in its infancy.  Enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was intended to be the aquatic corollary to the Wilderness Act of 1964, protecting the nation’s remaining free-flowing rivers as vital reminders of the frontier on which the American character was molded.  Originally, only eight rivers were designated for protection under the Act, with additional rivers being added at a snail’s pace during the first decade of the law’s existence.

Against this backdrop, American Rivers was born.  Our original purpose was to fight dams and designate new Wild and Scenic Rivers.  And we were enormously successful on both fronts. 

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One of our early successes was to kill a dam proposed for the New River in North Carolina.  As one of our founders, Chuck Clusen, now with the Natural Resources Defense Council, tells the story, then-President Gerald Ford was locked in a tight battle for the Republican nomination with former California Governor Ronald Reagan.  To help draw a distinction with Reagan on conservation issues, Ford held a White House signing ceremony for legislation protecting the New River.  With nothing more than an invitation to the White House in hand, Clusen drove his 1973 Ford Pinto through the White House gates, parking it under the North Portico, and strode inside for the ceremony!  From White House security to bipartisan conservation initiatives, a lot has changed over the past four decades, not all of it positively.

American Rivers also succeeded in dramatically expanding the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.  In our first five years, rivers protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act grew from eight to 43.  In 2009, we celebrated the designation of 82 new Wild and Scenic Rivers.  The Wild and Scenic Rivers System now includes 203 rivers totaling more than 12,500 miles in 39 states and Puerto Rico, but still protects just one quarter of one percent of the nation’s rivers.

Today, American Rivers continues to fight proposals to build new dams that would strangle free-flowing rivers.  We also continue to fight to permanently protect our remaining free-flowing rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.  But as we look forward to the next 40 years, we are also focusing on other opportunities and challenges as we work to conserve our rivers. 

Protecting rivers is still a major focus for American Rivers, and so we are working throughout the country to establish blue trails, water trails that connect communities to their rivers and build healthy economies.  In 2012 we helped create, expand, or sustain 400 miles of blue trails, and we connected 10,000 young people to these special rivers in their communities.

And because so many rivers across our country have been damaged, restoring rivers is also a priority. We are working with communities to remove outdated and unsafe dams, restoring free-flowing streams for fish and wildlife, and recreational opportunities for anglers and paddlers.  In 2012 alone, 63 dams in 19 states were removed.  Often in partnership with dam owners and operators, who are represented by groups such as the National Hydropower Association, we are also reforming how dams are operated to reduce adverse impacts on river ecosystems and improve water quality.  We are partnering with community groups and businesses across the country through our National River Cleanup® program.  Just last year, 85,000 volunteers participated in river cleanups, removing three million pounds of trash from rivers and streams. 

Finally, we are fighting to ensure clean water for our rivers and communities. We are helping communities establish green roofs, rain gardens, permeable pavement, and other elements of green infrastructure to reduce the volume of polluted runoff and improve water quality.  And we are demonstrating the economic benefits of adopting water efficiency measures as a better alternative to constructing costly new reservoirs. 

Looking back over the past four decades, we have made much progress as a nation in cleaning up and protecting our rivers.  At American Rivers, we are justly proud of our role in these accomplishments.  But looking ahead to the next four decades, it is clear that our river conservation work is more urgent than ever. We must ensure rivers are protected and restored to provide a buffer for people and wildlife against the adverse impacts of climate change - such as more frequent floods and droughts.  If there is one thing we’ve learned at American Rivers over the past 40 years, it is that we cannot simply rest our paddles and drift lazily downstream.  There are always rapids ahead, and to safely navigate them, we must keep paddling together.

Check out our interactive timeline about our first two decades of river conservation! You can learn more about our 40th Anniversary at www.AmericanRivers.org/40yearsofsuccess

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