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Keeping the Rio Grande Wild

red canoes with calm river and canyon in background

The Rio Grande has a huge cultural, political, social and geographic value for its residents and visitors alike, and that’s even without mentioning its impressive influence throughout history. So, safeguarding this river and others in the US for future generations is essential — we want to make sure to keep our favorite river around, right? The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System exists for this sole purpose, ensuring that US rivers are protected so that we can continue to appreciate their glory. So, what is it that is keeping our infamous river float trips afloat? Literally!

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System (NWSR System) was created by Congress in 1968 as a means of safeguarding rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational value in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations. In short, they realized it was time we protect our favorite rivers that bring us joy and much, much more, year in and year out. It was a means of encouraging cross-boundary and cross-political river management plans, as well as promoting public participation in their conservation.

Through the NWSR System, various parts of a river can be categorized into three separate categories:

  • Wild River Areas: rivers that are free from impoundments, unpolluted and generally inaccessible except by trails. They are believed to represent vestiges of the primitive US;
  • Scenic River Areas: rivers that are free from impoundments and have shorelines that are largely undeveloped but accessible in certain places by road; and
  • Recreational River Areas: rivers that are readily accessible by roads or railroad, may have some development on the shorelines and may have undergone some impoundment or diversion in the past.

By March 2019, the NWSR System is reported to protect over 13,413 miles of 226 rivers in 41 different US states. And while this may seem like a colossal stretch of water, it represents less than 0.25% of the nation’s rivers. To put this into perspective, think about it this way: more than 75,000 dams throughout the US have modified or restricted more than 600,000 miles of American rivers. That’s way more river than you thought we had, huh?

This is where the NWSR System comes in. Its intention was not to limit shoreline development, recreation or agricultural development. It’s actually mostly focused on preventing dam construction in order to allow for rivers to run freely like they were meant to do. More than that, it’s aimed at preventing any impact on the water’s quality and on the outstanding resource value, a principle often overlooked by construction companies.

The Rio Grande

A total of more than 190 miles of the Rio Grande was designated under the NWSR System on November 10th, 1978. Under this designation, about 95 miles of the river are now classified as a wild river area, and another 96 miles are classified as a scenic river area. Now who manages that, you ask?

Well, the National Park Service at Big Bend National Park, of course! The aim of the service is to protect the “outstandingly remarkable” scenic, geologic, wildlife and recreational values of the river. It never hurts to hear the glowing descriptions about our backyard! The management plan describes the rugged canyons, scenic rapids and unspoiled beauty as contributors to the scenic allure of the area (as if we didn’t already know!). That’s what we’ve been saying for years about Big Bend — it’s an irresistible playground of unruly rapids cascading through canyon wrens and chasms between moments of perfectly still, mirrored water. Now doesn’t that sound like the perfect outdoor vacation? We like to think so.

While defending the Rio Grande for human purposes is all fine and good, those aren’t the only reasons to protect this lifeblood of the desert. This mighty river provides a crucial habitat and wetland corridor for Chihuahuan Desert fauna, and the species that rely on the river for survival are not few and far between — quite the opposite, in fact. Without the protection of the NWSR System, much of this valuable habitat could be lost, not to mention its cultural and recreational value. The protected segments provide a diverse array of experiences for visitors — both human and not — to relish in nature at its finest.

It’s a small comfort that if Congress recognizes the sheer brilliance of the Rio Grande, then maybe we aren’t so crazy after all! But really, you need to see it for yourself. Come over to Far Flung Outdoor Center and be captivated by the untouched beauty of the Rio Grande. We’d be happy for you to join us along one of our many river float trips or if you’re game, let us help you have a go of it for yourself.

Contact us to find out more about what’s available, or simply send me an email at

– Greg