Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Dr. Michael L. Tate


In May 1991, President George H. Bush signed into law the Niobrara Scenic River Designation Act, which gave federal scenic-river designation to a 70-mile stretch of this northern-Nebraska river. The successful effort to protect this river was a protracted, often acrimonious battle, pitting Nebraska neighbors against each other. Interested parties found themselves on opposing sides of a seemingly insurmountable divide, either believing that this river resource should be given federal protection to preserve it unimpaired for future generations, or arguing that the local people should be allowed to determine the fate of “their” river without federal interference. The twentieth century West has seen this same battle waged many times before the Niobrara case. From Hetch-Hetchy to Echo Park to Glen Canyon; from Buffalo River to Auburn Dam to the Sagebrush Rebellion, the debate has been much the same. Those who favor federal protective legislation contend that only the federal government has the wherewithal and the power to assure that these fragile resources are protected from development and short-sighted exploitation. Those opposed to federal designation argue that any such preservation actions would compromise their freedoms and property rights. The impetus for federal designation came from a group of landowners along the river, who first organized in 1980 and lobbied U.S. Senator J. James Exon to introduce federal legislation protecting the river. He did so in 1985. This initiated a six-year process of meetings, discussions, editorializing, angry rhetoric, and finally compromise, involving Nebraska’s entire Congressional delegation, three governors, countless local officials, and a number of the state’s newspapers. This thesis will consider the federal, state and local efforts that led to the designation of the Niobrara as a federal scenic river, and the efforts at managing the park in its first decade of existence.


A Thesis Presented to the Department of History and the Faculty of the Graduate College University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Master of Arts University of Nebraska at Omaha. Copyright 2002, James A. Roeder

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