The Wild and Scenic Cache la Poudre River in Colorado.
Cache la Poudre River The Wild and Scenic Cache la Poudre River in Colorado. © Tim Palmer

Stories in Colorado

The Wild and Scenic Cache la Poudre River

A love letter to a river

Science Director, The Nature Conservancy in Colorado

John Sanderson is the Science Director for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado.

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Anticipation builds the moment I turn west at Ted’s Place, onto the last mile of straight road before 60 miles of twists and turns along the Cache la Poudre River, Colorado’s only federally designated Wild and Scenic River. As I enter the canyon, steep slopes of billion-year-old rock tower above the road. At Picnic Rock, just inside the canyon mouth, families spread out under cottonwood trees along the river to share sandwiches and lemonade. It was in this same stretch of river that I executed my first “combat roll” in a kayak, when a rapid got the best of me and tipped me over. With a sweep of my paddle and a snap of my hips I sat upright again.

Wild and scenic

The words evoke images of boundless, rugged, untamed beauty. Rivers that are protected under the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, have “outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values.” Because Wild and Scenic Rivers are so special, the Act says that they “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.”

I was a toddler when the Act was passed, so I guess at the time I was one of those “future generations.” I have so many precious memories thanks to this legislation: during my two and a half decades in Colorado, I’ve escaped often to the Poudre River to hike, fish, camp, climb and ski. Even though the river is Wild and Scenic, some of my favorite times here have been more mundane than scaling a peak or navigating a rapid. I celebrated my 50th birthday on the Poudre, barbequing with friends. When my daughter was in first grade, she played her violin on the Poudre’s banks, barefoot in a lavender dress. On family picnics, we’ve caught, admired and then released garter snakes and Woodhouse’s toads.

This Act has protected nearly 13,000 miles of 209 rivers in 40 states.

River kayaker on the Cache la Poudre River in Colorado
Kayaker River kayaker on the Cache la Poudre River in Colorado © Tim Palmer

Worth Protecting

On this early September day, we are driving up the river for a weekend of camping to celebrate a dear friend’s birthday. To our left, crowded forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir spread down north-facing slopes. To our right, no trees grow; these slopes bask in the hot sun all day and are covered by shrubs and grasses that need less water. This contrast illustrates a Colorado reality: growing peaches in Palisade, brewing beer in Fort Collins, angling for trout in Fraser, and restoring endangered greenback cutthroat trout in La Poudre Pass Creek all depend on one scarce resource—one worth protecting.

50 Years 

In this time of national tension over environmental protection, I’m taking time to reflect on the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act as it celebrates its own 50th anniversary. This Act has protected nearly 13,000 miles of 209 rivers in 40 states. Because of it, I can rest assured that when my daughter is my age, she will still be able to enjoy the yellow blaze of narrowleaf cottonwoods in autumn lining the Poudre. While hiking among those trees, perhaps with her own child, she may hear the buzz of a broad-tailed hummingbird.  And if she puts a boat on the river, she may catch a glimpse of an American dipper diving below the surface to feed on a mayfly larva beneath the Poudre’s cold, clear, free-flowing water. These are the gifts that every future generation deserves to inherit.

Science Director, The Nature Conservancy in Colorado

John Sanderson is the Science Director for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado.