The national forest that skirts three sides of Jackson Hole is inventorying thousands of miles of streams and rivers that could someday be eligible for Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protections.
Bridger-Teton National Forest officials announced this week that they were embarking on the public review of rivers and streams as a means of doing some legwork ahead of a revision of the 27-year-old forest plan, said Linda Merigliano, a recreation and wilderness specialist at the Bridger-Teton.
“This study is a required part of forest planning, so we might as well get started on it now,” Merigliano said. “Because we’re doing this now, the public has the opportunity to weigh in on this and not have to be overwhelmed by a thousand other different issues. Wild and scenic stuff is something that people tend to not pay attention to, because there are bigger issues to be dealing with.”
The 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is similar to the Wilderness Act, but applies to flowing water and the habitat immediately around it. The federal environmental law seeks to preserve free-flowing waterways that possess “outstandingly remarkable” values, which can be scenic, recreational, geologic, historic, cultural, or related to fish and wildlife. It takes an act of Congress to make a designation.
The last inventory of Bridger-Teton rivers and streams was included in the forest’s most recent forest plan, which dates to 1992, and it ultimately resulted in the more than 400 miles of the Snake River headwaters being designated as “wild,” “scenic” or “recreational” under the act. Did you float the Snake River Canyon on the Fourth of July? That was a protected “recreational” stretch of river. Waiting for Crystal Creek’s flows to simmer down so you can go cast for cutthroat? That’s both a “scenic” and “wild” stream that’s highly protected.
While large portions of the Snake watershed are already designated, the Bridger-Teton overlays three major river systems’ headwaters, the others being the Yellowstone and the Green.
A 2012 U.S. Forest Service planning rule demands that the forest inventory all rivers and streams that are named on 7.5’ U.S. Geological Survey quadrangle topographic maps. Part of the intent of the process that’s underway is to give the public the chance to propose eligibility for streams that these maps might not identify, but that nevertheless have outstanding or remarkable values, Merigliano said.
The other, more subjective feedback forest employees like Merigliano are seeking is viewpoints on what constitutes “outstanding and remarkable” values.
“What in peoples’ minds makes something exemplary?” she said. “It’s not going to be every river that’s unique.”
The end product of the ongoing inventory is a draft eligibility report, which has a target release date of May 2020. Although technically separate from the forest plan revision process, many of the document’s findings will be able to be imported into the overarching planning document for the 3.4-million-acre forest.
Similar pre-forest plan processes will take place for two other issues: the development of species of conservation concern and identification of lands with wilderness eligibility.
The Bridger-Teton has posted an interactive “story map” on its website that allows people to view all potentially eligible rivers and streams that are named on standard USGS quad maps. The feature identifies existing Wild and Scenic Rivers Act designations, and also waterways that were identified as eligible through the 1992 planning process. The same portal has a tab for public comments, which will be accepted throughout the summer but are most useful if received by July 19.
Merigliano is also orchestrating some field trips to show the public some potentially eligible rivers and streams, and convey what constitutes “outstanding remarkable” values. The field trip days and times are not yet set, but there will be one each in Lincoln, Sublette and Teton counties.