Alfred "Al" Buck has never floated the wild section of the lower Rogue River, nor does he have any plans to make the whitewater trip.

Alfred "Al" Buck has never floated the wild section of the lower Rogue River, nor does he have any plans to make the whitewater trip.

"I'd never float that wild water down there — I really don't care much for whitewater," said the Eagle Point resident.

Yet Buck, 93, helped create the National Wild and Scenic Rivers program, beginning with half a dozen protected waterways across the nation in 1968, including the lower 84 miles of the Rogue River and its nationally renowned whitewater.

In recognition of that, he was named in the March issue of Field & Stream magazine as one of its national Heroes of Conservation.

The lifelong angler and hunter will tell you he appreciates whitewater for its place in the natural world. It's just that he would rather leave floating the big rapids to the experts.

"Of course, I had to do a lot of whitewater rafting when we were evaluating the rivers being studied," said the World War II veteran. "But that was in big rafts. I'd never get in a kayak.

"We always had people who would float a river before we ever did a report," he added, noting that members of his staff floated the lower Rogue before it was designated. "I didn't float all of them. I didn't have time. I was in charge of it. And I didn't have the desire to float all of them. I've never felt real good on those things."

Besides, it would have meant eventually floating literally thousands of river miles.

Since its inception, the program has protected more than 250 rivers covering some 12,000 miles nationwide with wild, scenic or recreational status. In Oregon, portions of more than 40 waterways have been protected, including the Rogue section in 1968 and some 50 miles of the lower Illinois River in 1984.

Those who helped guide the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system from its inception changed the course of aquatic conservation, said Bob Hunter, staff attorney for WaterWatch of Oregon, an environmental watchdog group for the state's waterways.

"They were visionaries who protected some of the most treasured waterways in the country," said Hunter, whose drift boat is no stranger to the Rogue. "And Southern Oregon has been a special beneficiary of that program. It helped preserve those rivers for future generations. Those rivers are a big economic draw for our region."

A native of Pennsylvania, where his first fishing pole was fashioned from a willow limb, Buck moved to Eagle Point from California in 2001 after Helen, his childhood sweetheart and wife of 55 years, passed away. Their son, Jim Buck, is the project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers at Lost Creek and Applegate reservoirs.

Shortly after his arrival in the valley, Al Buck stepped forward to volunteer with the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy.

"Al keeps us on our toes," said executive director Diane Garcia, noting he is a member of the group's lands committee. "He always asks hard questions, ones that make us think about things. He has the technical background and the vision. We have so much respect for him and his experience."

Buck's career in protecting waterways wasn't launched until after he returned from Europe following WWII. His Army artillery unit had participated in the second day of the D-Day invasion into Normandy early in June of 1944, then fought its way into Germany.

Using his GI Bill, he earned a bachelor's degree in geography from the University of Pittsburgh. He worked for three years for the Army Map Service in Washington, D.C., then took a job in intelligence with the Navy and Air Force, he said. While there, he attended night school, intending to earn a master's degree.

He never completed the final work for his masters, but wrote a thesis on the potential for outdoor recreation in the Potomac River basin. Based on his thesis, he was hired by the National Park Service as the agency's geographer.

Meanwhile, Congress passed the National Outdoor Recreation Act of 1962, which called for development of a wild and scenic rivers program.

"In 1963, about 10 of us in the Park Service were transferred to establish the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation," he recalled of the Department of the Interior's agency whose mission was to plan outdoor recreation opportunities nationwide.

"I was asked to help organize the Land and Water Conservation Fund," he said. "After three years, I was asked to do the same thing for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program. I spent 15 years on that program."

That meant working with the White House, as well as members of the U.S. House and Senate.

"When you are dealing with water, it's always a tough nut to crack," he said. "My job was to coordinate everything and get those reports completed. But, with water, you are fighting all the time to get something done."

He would spend a quarter of a century working in D.C., an experience he figures made him appreciate the wild and scenic rivers all the more.

"We need the open space, the natural values," he said. "We have to have places where people can get out and enjoy nature at its best."

In turn, nature needs a place to nurture, he said.

"I think we did a good job in protecting rivers," he said. "But there are a lot of rivers out there. I'm sure there are other candidates we missed."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.