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Wild Side: Still wild at 50

Flamboyant rivers careening through my mind, gathering all material stored in times of harried distress, taken out now on rafts of wildness.

Featuring footholds, disappearing in white waters, floating through canyons of loneliness.

Sheer walls, reaching towards tops of mountains, heightening and expanding limits of multitudes into creative forces on brand new shores of life.

—RoseAnn V. Shawiak

I went boating as a kid, but the first time I appreciated a real wild river was when I was working for the Bureau of Land Management in Medford. Fresh out of college, my job was surveying for rare wildlife in logging units. But like most everyone else, I put my name on the list for the Wild Rogue River maintenance detail.

What was the river detail job? It was the glamorous task of cleaning bathrooms along the river. That’s right, I volunteered to clean bathrooms. But I wasn’t alone. Everyone wanted this gig. The reason why? You got to float down the stunning Wild Rogue River, through the rushing rapids and gorgeous gorges. To just about any 20-something BLM employee, bathroom detail was well worth a trip down the Wild Rogue.

This year we are celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Thanks to the work of many a river activist, Congress finally recognized that, as dams were being built and development was proceeding, we were losing America’s wild rivers. On Oct. 2, 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was signed into law, stating “certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments, possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

The Wild Rogue River northwest of Grants Pass was one of the original eight rivers in the nation designated under this act. In the past 50 years, several other stretches of river have been designated by Congress in our region, including the Chetco, Illinois, Smith, Elk, Klamath, Salmon and Trinity Rivers.

The fact that there are so many designated rivers — many more are, of course, eligible — demonstrates how lucky we are to live in such a special area for wild rivers. Just look at the most recent addition to the Wild and Scenic system: the River Styx. This is the first underground stream to receive this coveted status. It is the stream that flows through the cave system at the Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve near Cave Junction.

Since the time when I first went down the Wild Rogue River I have explored many more rivers in the Wild and Scenic River system. I’ve also witnessed firsthand how severely many of our rivers have been degraded. Over the last 50 years, dams, mines, and development have transformed our rivers and they will never be as wild and free as our Wild and Scenic Rivers. Many others are well-deserving of protection, but sadly are threatened by new development proposals.

Do you want to learn more about Wild and Scenic Rivers and celebrate the anniversary? First of all, you should make plans to get on a National Wild and Scenic River this summer. Second, join Robyn Janssen and Stacey Detwiler from Rogue Riverkeeper at the many events they are hosting this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary. (Learn more at www.rogueriverkeeper.org.)

On Wednesday, March 14, Rogue Riverkeeper will host Zach Collier of Northwest Rafting Company for a slide show presentation on Oregon's Wild & Scenic Rivers at Common Block Brewing Co. in Medford.

For an event close to home, Tim Palmer, author of "Wild & Scenic Rivers: An American Legacy" will discuss our region’s amazing rivers at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 25, at the Ashland Outdoor Store. (Suggested $5 donation at the door.)

I hope to see you there!

— Joseph Vaile is executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild, 541-488-5789, www.kswild.org). His Wild Side column appears every three weeks.