When Zach Collier paddled down the cool and clear upper Chetco River last week, he couldn’t help but think back to events five decades ago that helped put him there.
Men in suits on the East Coast who were worried about the river-damming era of their time pushed for a law that would protect wild streams and their banks for future generations.
“Future generations,” says Collier, a 44-year-old rafting and kayaking guide and outfitter. “I get goosebumps every time I read that. That’s us.”
The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act turns 50 this year, and Collier is helping pay homage to the law by systematically researching and personally experiencing each of Oregon’s 58 river reaches protected by that act.
The Wild and Scenic Section of the Rogue downstream of Rainie Falls is one of the eight original rivers protected under the act that now covers 203 river designations, including a second one on the far upper Rogue in the Union Creek region.
Oregon has the most streams protected under the 1968 act, thanks largely to 40 designations championed in 1988 by former Sen. Mark Hatfield, who earlier helped shepherd funding to complete Lost Creek and Applegate dams in the Rogue River Basin and attempted to complete Elk Creek Dam, which was later abandoned and demolished a decade ago.
The designation means the rivers must be protected as free-flowing and managed to preserve natural, cultural and recreational values. The protections extend a quarter-mile from each bank, but not the river’s source or other aspects of it outside the designated boundaries.
Southern Oregon contains the largest concentration of Wild and Scenic rivers in the lower 48 states, and the Rogue Basin is well represented in the three designations of the act — Wild, Scenic and Recreation.
Wild rivers are largely primitive and generally inaccessible other than by water or trail, while Scenic rivers are similar but accessible in places by roads. Recreation rivers are readily accessible, have some shoreline development and may have housed dams in the past.
On the Rogue, those three designations cover 84.5 miles of water from the mouth of the Applegate River to Lobster Creek about 16 river miles upstream of the Pacific. That includes the Rogue’s famed Wild Section from Whisky Creek near Rainie Falls to Wassom Creek near Foster Bar.
The far upper Rogue from the Crater Lake National Park boundary to the end of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest boundary near Prospect is also designated, as is part of the Illinois River.
The designation has brought certain protections to the Rogue, including caps on commercial guides and public launches during popular spring and summer rafting and fishing seasons, and it helps squelch any possibility for the once-proposed Copper Canyon Dam on the lower Rogue downstream from the mouth of the Illinois.
The proposed hydroelectric dam detailed in a 1931 report was to stand 200 feet tall and back up the Rogue far upstream, says Tim Palmer, a Port Orford author of several books, including “Wild and Scenic Rivers: An American Legacy.”
When talk of the dam resurfaced in the 1960s, fishing guides and others coalesced their opposition and turned toward support of the Rogue being added to the original list of eight Wild and Scenic rivers, Palmer says.
“I think the Rogue was probably a shoe-in from the beginning,” Palmer says. “The Forest Service knew it was a pretty amazing river. Ever since Zane Grey people knew that.”
In all, Oregon’s Wild and Scenic rivers stretch more than 1,916 miles, or 2 percent of Oregon’s nearly 111,000 miles of river, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Some, like the lower Rogue Canyon stretch and the upper Chetco, Collier runs regularly either for pleasure or for his Hood River-based Northwest Rafting Company. But the quest to visit all of Oregon’s Wild and Scenic stretches began last year with Collier “not really knowing how hard that would be,” he says.
Some, like the North Fork of the John Day River or the Minam River in the Wallowa Mountains, take more planning and preparation for what amounts to multiple-day floats through technical water.
“We could just go visit them and check them off the list,” Collier says. “But they deserve to be done the right way.”
Some are not floatable, such as the River Styx that flows underground in Oregon Caves near Cave Junction.
So far he’s hit 41 of them, and he hopes to get through 50 by the end of the year.
Collier and others on these expeditions are chronicling their journeys and experiences at www.oregonwildandscenic.com, “like a portfolio of what we’ve visited,” he says.
Among all the truly remote Wild and Scenic rivers in Oregon, however, one continues to stand out to Collier.
“I’m really partial to the Chetco,” Collier says. “To me, it’s the epitome of a Wild and Scenic river. It’s wild, clear and untouched. It’s mentally and physically exhausting. It’s the Chetco.”
River lovers plan a 50th anniversary party near Gold Hill for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the Rogue River, which is one of the eight original Wild and Scenic rivers.
The event is slated to run from noon to 7 p.m. Saturday at Valley of the Rogue State Park off Interstate 5 near Gold Hill.
The event will also highlight the National Trails System Act. That and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act were adopted by Congress in 1968.
The free event includes music, speakers, food and beverage vendors and exhibitors.