The idea, coming from an Administration that is generally antagonistic to conservation initiatives, was electrifying: Find a truly wild and undeveloped river in the continental United States and make the entire watershed a national park. The concept came from that innovative Californian, William Penn Mott Jr., last May when he took command as director of the National Park Service.
"I would like to see somewhere in the United States a total river system preserved in its natural condition so that everybody would be able to see what rivers looked like before man came here," Mott said.
Mott's call has triggered an outpouring of enthusiasm and and set off a dilly of a search.The National Park Service started with a list of 1,500 river segments covering 61,000 miles. That has been trimmed to about 300 rivers. Mott hopes to make a recommendation to Congress early this year.
There already is the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system that guards many pristine streams against development, such as the construction of dams. But wild-river designation does not normally cover an entire watershed, nor does it confer the status, the degree of protection and visitor services of a national park.
Eager conservation groups and others have flooded the Park Service with their own nominations. The Save-the-Redwoods League of San Francisco has proposed the 680-square-mile drainage of the Smith River in the redwood country of northwestern California and a portion of southern Oregon. Other California suggestions are the Big Sur, the upper Kings River in the Sierra Nevada and the Mattole in Humboldt and Mendocino counties.
Nominees elsewhere include Kisatchie Bayou in Louisiana, the White and San Juan in Colorado, the Swift Diamond in New Hampshire, the Gauley in West Virginia, West Clear Creek in Arizona, the Yellowstone in Montana, the Buffalo in Arkansas, the Payette in Idaho and the Skykomish in Washington state.
Selection of a river will be difficult. Local commercial and land-holding interests would have to be accommodated at a cost consistent with Washington's budget-cutting mood. It might take years before Mott's concept becomes reality, unless Congress acts with unusual dispatch. But just the idea itself has earned the Park Service tremendous good will, and the search process has prompted groups throughout the continental United States to take a fresh interest in their neighborhood streams.
Mott's idea is such a good one that Congress ought to catch the river spirit, too, and make the nation's first wild-river park a reality without undue delay.