A Wild and Scenic Legacy

On its 50th anniversary, explore how the people of Wisconsin shaped The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

October 5, 2018

*Fred Madison passed away on June 3, 2019. The Nelson Institute extends our deepest condolences to his family and friends. Link to Fred's obituary.

From the blue-green pools of the Salmon River in Alaska to the rugged shores of the Rio Grande in Texas, the United States is home to thousands of miles of free-flowing rivers that showcase the natural, cultural, and recreational value of the country’s waterways. Protecting these waterways was a personal and political passion for Nelson Institute namesake and U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, who grew up in Wisconsin near rivers like the St. Croix. In fact, Nelson was the driving force behind the development of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that sought protection for the country’s most critical rivers. This year, marks the 50th anniversary of the Act, which will be celebrated at the 2018 Nelson Institute Jordahl Lecture on Wednesday, October 17, where photographer, river conservationist and author of Wild and Scenic Rivers: An American Legacy, Tim Palmer will speak about the history of the Act and the significance of this growing river system. 

Rooted in Wisconsin, the nationwide wild and scenic river system was passed in the fall of 1968 thanks to the efforts of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson and his legislative aide Fred Madison, who now serves as a UW-Madison emeritus professor of soil science. Thanks to their vision, and the support of others, including Wisconsin conservation pioneer and Jordahl lecture namesake, Harold “Bud” Jordahl, all or sections of over 200 rivers are now under the act’s protection.  

For Madison the growth of the program has been especially meaningful.  “It’s 50 years old now and it’s matured,” said Madison of the Act. “It has had some rough sledding, though it’s overcome most of those obstacles.” According to Madison, the rough sledding occurred mostly in the early days when Senator Nelson was campaigning for the Act. Of those who opposed the Act, Madison said most were either opposed to the restrictions it would place on development along the rivers or they didn’t believe that there were any wild and scenic rivers east of the Mississippi.

“Nelson was, at the time, the only senator from east of the Mississippi to sit on the committee, so we were not strongly represented,” Madison said. “The rest of the crowd spent their time fighting over the Colorado River, but Gaylord felt very strongly we should have something recreational east of the river. He didn’t think that everybody from Connecticut had to go to Wyoming, that there was stuff in between and he was right, of course.”

The Act banned dams and other major developments involving the federal government along the designated sections of the rivers. It also required agencies to prepare management plans, with the cooperation of local governments, which are responsible for any land use controls, such as flood plain zoning. For Tim Palmer, these were critical parts of the Act.

“The Wild and Scenic system is important because it bars dams and other damaging projects that involve the federal government, including federal permits for hydroelectric dams,” said Palmer. “It also engages local communities in plans to safeguard their rivers.”

In the end, the positive community benefits helped Nelson to gain support for the Act. In fact, Madison recalls that there was strong support from President Lyndon B. Johnson, who included the Act in his budget.

“In the year that the bill was enacted, it was in President Johnson’s budget and that helped,” Madison said.  “It was something engineered by then Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall who was a strong supporter of the bill. In those days being in the President’s budget was, I suppose, comparable to having the seal of approval and it was an endorsement that helped a lot and gave us a lot of energy.”

On October 2, 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act officially became law, with the St. Croix near Nelson’s hometown included in the eight rivers named in the original act. Since that day, more than 12,000 miles of wild and scenic water in 40 states have been protected.

“This is the nation's and the world's premier program for river protection,” said Palmer. “The greatest successes are the protection of dozens of rivers where unnecessary dams were proposed but stopped. The program has also led to effective recreation management on rivers such as the Namekagon and St. Croix.” 

 While the program has continued to grow over the past half-century, helping to preserve many waterways for future generations, there are additional threats to the integrity of the Act and the rivers it seeks to protect. 

“Challenges ahead include climate change and population growth,” said Palmer. “With intensified floods and droughts, there will likely be renewed interest in damming rivers, even though those projects may make no economic or hydrologic sense. We are also facing pressure to de-designate rivers now included in the program—the Merced of California being the first example.”

Palmer plans to discuss some of these challenges and related opportunities at the Nelson Institute’s free, public Jordahl Lecture on October 17, 2018, but his main goal is to share his experience on the rivers and encourage others to learn about and support this unique program so that it can continue to protect rivers for future generations. 

“It’s important to maintain interest in the program,” Madison said regarding the program’s survival. “We need to build a cavalry of people who are working with the program who can provide support.”

To attend the Jordahl Lecture or to learn more, please visit: https://nelson.wisc.edu/events/jordahl-lectures/index.php


Free and open to the public

Wild and scenic Rivers: An american Legacy 


Tim palmer

Award-winning author and photographer

Wednesday, October 17
7:00 p.m.
Shannon Hall, Memorial Union

800 Langdon St., Madison, WI (map)