Protecting the Gem of the North Coast: Support State Scenic Waterway Designation for the Nehalem

In Oregon by Kyle Smith

Photo courtesy of Ken Morrish/Fly Water Travel


Later this year, organizations and individuals across the country will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the federal Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.  Thanks to the Act, more than 12,000 miles of wild, scenic, and recreational rivers have been established nationwide including 1,916.7 river miles in Oregon.  These rivers include a who’s who of legendary steelhead water across our state- Chetco, Rogue, North Umpqua, John Day, and Deschutes to name just a few.  The well-known Act is as a powerful and unique tool to protect our best remaining wild places and shield them from the pressures of development. In many ways, the Act is responsible for the great angling opportunity we have available across the Pacific Northwest.


An equally important, yet lesser-known, river protection tool exists in Oregon’s state scenic waterway law.  Established in 1970 by a citizens’ initiative, Oregon’s Scenic Waterways Program aims to protect the natural, free-flowing qualities of rivers and associated ecological values while allowing for responsible use of neighboring lands.  Importantly, the State Scenic Waterway program works to protect designated waterways from the constructions of dams, dredging and mining and other activities that would disrupt the scenic qualities of the area all while preserving the public’s right to enjoy them through activities like hiking, fishing, kayaking, rafting, and camping.


Photo courtesy of Ken Morrish/Fly Water Travel

Laws that aim to conserve our rivers, such as the State Scenic Waterway statute, are becoming increasingly important as factors such as climate change, population growth and drought conditions converge to place pressure on water supplies (and the fish and wildlife that rely on them for survival).  Accordingly, Trout Unlimited and Wild Steelheaders United have been advocating for Oregon’s Park and Recreation Department (OPRD) to consider, at more regular intervals, new river segments for inclusion in the State Scenic Waterway Program.


OPRD is taking a step in the right direction and is currently considering whether to designate a 17-mile segment of the Nehalem River as a State Scenic Waterway to permanently protect its scenic and recreational values.


The stretch of the Nehalem River under consideration supports many different native anadromous fish species, including one of the healthiest runs of wild winter steelhead in Oregon.  Consequently, this area presents fantastic angling opportunities.  Many other recreational activities are supported by the reach including hiking, kayaking, rafting and camping.  These activities are buoyed by the area’s beautiful scenery, several popular campgrounds (a gravel road that proceeds along a stretch of the river also supports several undeveloped camping spots), the adjacent Cougar Valley State Park and boating access via the Beaver Slide Boat Ramp.


Additionally, the reach abuts two large segments of state forest land designated as High Value Conservation Areas.  Theselands total over 7000 acres and contain valuable forests designed to provide older, complex habitat.


TU strongly supports the proposed designation.  While a final decision on the designation has not yet been made, an important milestone in this effort has been reached.  OPRD recently released a draft management plan for the Nehalem River that contains rules and guidelines regarding what constitutes acceptable water flows, public access and development in the protected reach.


What you can do


OPRD is holding a public meeting on September 6 from 5-7:30pm at Astoria City Hall.  Show up to the meeting or submit written comments via email to in favor of designating the Nehalem as one of Oregon’s State Scenic Waterways.


Chandra Ferrari is Trout Unlimited’s Senior Policy Associate, based in Salem, Oregon.