Sen. Ron Wyden, center, speaks with students from Pacific Crest Middle School and Bend High School and other community members about the nomination of Tumalo Creek as a protected stream under the Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

On the banks of Tumalo Creek on Monday, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., declared the success of a grassroots campaign to designate thousands of miles of rivers and creeks in Oregon as “wild and scenic,” protecting them in perpetuity.

Surrounded by Bend-area students that nominated rivers in Central Oregon, Wyden told reporters that the process to have the River Democracy Act passed is on a “fast track.”

If passed, the legislation will add nearly 4,700 miles of rivers and streams in Oregon to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, a special designation that protects rivers in the same way that a national park protects a designated area of land.

Wyden and Oregon’s junior senator, Jeff Merkley, also a Democrat, rallied Oregonians over a year ago to nominate their favorite rivers for inclusion in the act. More than 15,000 nominations poured in for what Wyden said was one of this country’s largest grassroots campaigns.

“This is how political change starts in Oregon,” said Wyden, flanked by two seventh graders from Pacific Crest Middle School and three seniors at Bend High School. “It’s not top-down. It’s grassroots up, and these incredible people are proving it.”

Caitlin Houston, a seventh grader from Pacific Crest, enjoys fly-fishing and said Tumalo Creek is one of her favorite spots to cast a line.

“I love hanging around rivers because of the scenery and wildlife. I really appreciate rivers and what they do for our community,” said Houston. “Tumalo Creek is on Sen. Wyden’s list to protect, which is super cool.”

Another Pacific Crest seventh grader, Jordyn Berry, said she wants to protect more of Oregon’s river network to provide additional areas of recreation for herself and the public.

“I’d like to protect rivers to create memories, spend time with my family and see nature,” said Berry.

The Bend High students nominated Wychus Creek for protection.

“My entire life I have spent outdoors by rivers, and I really appreciate all of these spaces that we can recreate in,” said GG Johnson, a senior at Bend High and a co-president of the school’s environmental club. “These places have significant value that should not be forgotten and should be maintained for our generation and future generations.”

Oregon currently has 2,173 miles of river and streams protected under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, which is 2% of the state’s river miles. Wyden said he wants Oregon to overtake Alaska, which ranks first in the nation with 3,210 protected miles.

“We want to beat Alaska, and I have told (Alaska Sen.) Lisa Murkowski we are going to beat her,” said Wyden. “We are tops in the lower 48. She knows we are getting ready to take the title.”

Wyden added that protecting rivers not only has an environmental component but can also boost an area’s economy, by drawing tourists and day-trippers.

“In a difficult economy, recreation is a huge economic engine, because you have guides, you have people selling equipment, you have pubs, you have restaurants, you have hotels, you have gas stations. It’s a big economic multiplier,” Wyden told the students.

More than 670,000 people purchased fishing licenses in 2019, generating over $1.5 billion for the state, said Betsy Emery, advocacy and campaign manager for the Association of Northwest Steelheaders. Fishing licenses are believed to have increased by 20% last year, she said.

“There’s a big interest in rivers,” said Emery. “It’s important to protect these rivers for salmon and all of the species that live with them.”

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