Idaho Senator Frank Church was a driving force behind the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. In 1965, Senator Church introduced a new bill called the National Wild Rivers Bill. This served as a basis for what became the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Frank Church understood the importance of protecting America’s rivers stating, “If we fail to give these rivers . . . statutory protection now, while there is still time, we shall have only ourselves to blame later, when time has run out.” The forward thinking of Church helped push rivers into the legislative spotlight and led to the designation of numerous Idaho rivers.
On October 2, 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act declaring, “An unspoiled river is a very rare thing in this Nation today. Their flow and vitality have been harnessed by dams and too often they have been turned into open sewers by communities and by industries.” The act signified a concerted effort to protect America’s rivers. Once the act passed, the U.S. Forest Service created teams to study many of Idaho’s rivers to see if they met the criteria of a wild and scenic river. In order to be classified, rivers needed to meet certain criteria, “Their immediate environments, possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geological, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition.” Those remarkable values elevated some rivers above others. After the establishment of those values, a river was put into one of three categories, wild, scenic, or recreational. To qualify as wild, a river could have neither developments nor dams and only be accessible by trail. Scenic rivers also needed to be dam-free and mostly undeveloped. Roads were allowed on scenic rivers along with trails. Lastly, recreational rivers could be accessed by both roads and trails, and there can be some development, like campgrounds, along the river. The river could still be classified as recreational even if a dam or diversion altered the course of the river in the past. Rivers could have sections that encompassed all three or just one designation. Idaho’s rivers incorporated the full range of the outstanding remarkable values and designations.
In 1969, Idaho Governor Don Samuelson requested a joint study with the Forest Service and Idaho Water Resource Board to assess the St. Joe River. In 1974, the study found the river met the criteria for inclusion into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System and was formally designated on November 10, 1978. The scenery, recreational opportunities, and the abundance of fish and wildlife were deemed exceptional in and along the river, and 39.7 miles were designated as wild while 26.6 miles were designated as recreational.
While the mileage of rivers included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System is low, the passing of the act helped preserve rivers from pollution and development. In doing so, it created a system of rivers that can be enjoyed by future generations.