50 years ago, in the middle of paroxysms of civil and political unrest at home and around the world, the federal government nevertheless moved to protect huge swaths of wilderness. Six new national parks were created. The National Trails System Act was passed. In October, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was shepherded through congress by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) and was signed into law by President Johnson.
Since 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act has preserved 12,734 miles of waterways. The idea was to mitigate, at some level, the destruction of watersheds by decades of overzealous damming by preserving the nation’s most pristine and uniquely scenic rivers, simply so they may be enjoyed in as natural a state as possible.
One of those rivers, Kentucky’s Red River, was supposed to be dammed in the 1960s. In 1967, the Sierra Club took the unusual step of flying Supreme Court Justice and known conservationist William O. Douglas to the Red River Gorge to hike the area and meet with reporters and chat with opponents and supporters of the dam. That move drew attention to the Red River by environmentalists across the country, public outcry grew against the dam proposal, and, eventually, the dam idea was jettisoned.
In 1993, the Red River was named a Wild and Scenic River and protected against development forever.
Back in 1967, a young man named Joe Bowen attended Douglas’s hike. Bowen was a vocal supporter of the dam project. “I wanted to see [the Red River] dammed up—I wanted to waterski on it,” he later said.
The next year, Bowen, a fascinating figure, would go on to ride a bike some 14,000 miles, crisscrossing the U.S. on a zigzagging route from California back to Kentucky after leaving the Air Force. In 1980, Bowen walked—on a pair of stilts—3,000 miles across the country to raise money and awareness for the fight against muscular dystrophy. He’s since built monuments to important figures in Kentucky history and personally restored historic buildings.
Along the way, Bowen also changed his mind about damming the Red River. Now in his 70s, he’s fallen further in love with the Red River Gorge and has become a champion of the natural beauty he once advocated flooding beneath a lake. “In 75 years of living,” Bowen says, “I’ve changed my attitude about this wild river. The river is ours. So if it’s ours, then it’s also our responsibility. I want my great grandchildren to see what I have seen.”
In the video below, he explains that distrust of the federal government, and fearing ceding local control, can convince people to oppose things like the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. But, as Bowen eventually came to realize: “We are the government—it’s ours. It’s what we make of it.”
This video is part of a series put out by the U.S. Forest Service in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers program. They’re seeking public input about how best to manage and protect these waterways.
Hiring the charming Bowen as a spokesperson sure wouldn’t hurt.