OUTDOOR recreationists received a Christmas present from Oregon Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R) when he announced a plan to bring 27 more Oregon rivers under federal protection. Mr. Hatfield plans to introduce legislation in late January to designate or require the study of those rivers for protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, according to his office. ``No bill like this has even been attempted,'' an aide to the senator said. ``It would increase the number of rivers in the national registry [of wild and scenic rivers] by one-third. As such it represents a quantum leap in natural resource protection.''
Oregon Congressmen Peter A. DeFazio (D) and Les AuCoin (D) meanwhile said they would introduce companion legislation in the House.
Environmentalists and industrialists alike will be monitoring the progress of the proposed legislation, because it could trigger similar action in other Western states. Wild and scenic status would curb industrial and residential development along the designated streams. Under the act, ``wild'' rivers are free of dams and diversions, have undeveloped banks, and are generally accessible only by trail; ``scenic'' rivers are free of impoundments, undeveloped, and accessible by road.
Outdoor activists view the proposal as a positive sign of the growing strength of the Western rivers movement in this the 20th anniversary of the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
Passage of the act did not produce the sweeping protection its proponents had hoped for, but observers say that rivers, long overshadowed by comprehensive issues such as wilderness, have come into their own as a natural resource concern.
Steven Whitney of the Wilderness Society says, ``The public today understands we've got to be much more careful about managing our lands and waters. As a result there's a big constituency for rivers, and it's a vocal one.''
In past decades, says Robert Doppelt of the Oregon Rivers Council, activists focused on cleaning up rivers; the focus has shifted to enjoying and preserving free-flowing waters instead of ``locking them up'' for industrial and municipal use. Mr. Whitney adds, ``Public support for river protection has translated into big successes on the Hill [Congress].''
Particularly in the Northwest, a region poor in population but rich in streams, many elected officials are lining up squarely behind river protection. In November, Washington Sens. Dan Evans (R) and Brock Adams (D) and Rep. Sid Morrison (R) introduced legislation authorizing study of the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, while Mr. DeFazio introduced similar legislation for a section of the Upper Klamath River.
An avid outdoor recreationist, DeFazio calls for a comprehensive approach to river management: ``We need to study the cumulative effects of all our management decisions, particularly hydroelectric projects, waste water treatment, clear-cutting for timber, and road building in sensitive watersheds. The present system of management does not allow us to look at the sum total of the decisions we make affecting our rivers.''
The adoption of a systemic approach is, in fact, a hallmark of the river movement in the West. Its members, says Ron Stork of Friends of the River, ``are no longer content to fight for rivers mile by mile and stretch by stretch.'' His group, headquartered in Sacramento, Calif., and claiming more than 9,000 members throughout the Western states, recently completed the first phase of its ambitious Three Rivers Campaign, resulting in substantial protection for the Kings, Merced, and Kern, the three major California rivers that drain the High Sierra. In Oregon, which has more than 35,000 miles of named river, the Oregon Rivers Council launched an Oregon River Comeback Campaign ``to protect, enhance, and restore every river mile in Oregon.'' In recent years, industrial interests had thwarted comprehensive protective legislation, but the tide turned in the 1987 legislature with key bills that, among other things, put the brakes on hydroelectric development in Oregon. Mr. Stork calls that industry ``the major threat to Western rivers today.''
The growing ability to advance its political agenda, observers say, signals a new professionalism and sophistication within the rivers movement, as does an emphasis on coalition building. Washington's Northwest Rivers Council, for example, got anglers and boaters to line up with outdoor guides, environmentalists, and Indian tribes to curb hydroelectric development and press for omnibus river protection legislation in that state.
In the process, the movement has embraced the consensus model of resource planning. Rep. Hank Brown (R) of Colorado, for example, got environmentalist leaders, industrial advocates, and outdoor users to sit down and hammer out a management plan for Colorado's Powder River, recently designated a ``wild and scenic river.''
These developments come as no surprise to Richard Walsh of Colorado State University. He and his colleagues recently completed an innovative study of wild and scenic rivers that is considered to be a landmark work in resource economics. Among its findings the study put to rest what Dr. Walsh calls ``the big myth that the only people who care about rivers are an elite with the financial resources and leisure to enjoy water-based recreation.''
His research showed that support for rivers from the general public is essentially the same as from users and delineated three categories of sentiment for resource protection. Those wanting to preserve free-flowing streams for future generations put a ``bequest value'' on the resource. Those needing to be assured that a particular ecosystem exists place an ``existence value'' on rivers. People desiring some future opportunity to enjoy rivers for recreational, scenic, or contemplative uses place an ``option value'' on rivers, which Walsh likens to stock options.
River organizations in other areas of the West, including British Columbia, are trying to raise funds to underwrite similar studies for their regions to provide documentation to back up their legislative lobbying and public education efforts.
These developments and political successes convince advocates like Whitney that the rivers movement is gaining momentum. ``In economic terms,'' he says, ``rivers have always been the lifeblood of our nation. But a lot of people have had very positive, personal experiences with rivers from early childhood, whether it's swimming or it's fishing with a grandparent. As a result, rivers are a major focus in this country for recreational as well as contemplative experiences, and that is translating into direct action.''