Bill Would Open Yellowstone National Park to Paddling
What will it take to make paddling legal in Yellowstone and Grand Teton? How about an act of Congress?
By Eugene Buchanan
On Friday, Nov. 15, Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis introduced HR 3492 which would eliminate longstanding federal regulations prohibiting paddling on rivers in Yellowstone National Park and parts of Grand Teton National Park. During the Congressional hearing, Lummis said that the final say over which rivers would be opened to paddling should rest with park managers.
“The intent is not to open all rivers all the time to paddling,” Lummis said. “The intent is to remove a prohibition so paddlers can sit down with the parks superintendents and discuss where and when paddling makes sense.”
As well as politicians, there were plenty of paddlers on hand pleading the cause. One of them was Aaron Pruzan, a past board member of American Whitewater, a founding board member of the Snake River Fund, founder of the Jackson Hole Kayak Club and owner of Rendezvous River Sports in Jackson, Wyo. Hoping to open up paddling in an area near and dear to his
heart and home, Pruzan was also actively involved in 2009 the designation of 414 miles of the Snake River’s headwaters as Wild and Scenic Rivers.
“It’s exactly the type of activity that our National Park System was set up to support,” he testified. “Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks offer some of the best paddling opportunities in the world for all abilities. To live so near to these amazing rivers and yet be unable to experience them is a constant frustration for me and many other residents
and visitors. Park managers don’t have the discretion to manage these parks consistent with modern NPS policies, priorities and practices because of these outdated and unusual federal rules.
“There are many stretches that can be opened with minimal impacts,” he added. “There is already a boat registration system in place for both parks and all non-motorized boats are required to have a permit. Boat registration requires a fee, which is a source of revenue for the parks, and provides boaters with the park boating regulations. Backcountry use is already tightly controlled and paddlers would need to adhere to current regulations as hikers and back packers do.”
Yellowstone officially banned paddling in 1950 to prevent overfishing. Ever since, federal regulations specific to Yellowstone and Grand Teton have limited where visitors can paddle in the parks. In Yellowstone, watercraft is prohibited on park rivers and streams, except on the three-mile channel between Lewis Lake and Shoshone Lake, which is open only to hand-propelled vessels. Anglers can use float tubes on rivers with a permit. In Grand Teton, paddlecraft can be used on Jackson, Jenny, Phelps, Emma Matilda, Two Ocean, Taggart, Bradley, Bearpaw, Leigh, and String Lakes and on the Snake
For the bill to pass, a main issue to address is what entity would manage potential paddling in the parks.
“American Whitewater fully supports the elimination of the 60-year old paddling bans,” says American Whitewater National Stewardship Director Kevin Colburn, who was also on hand to testify on the bill’s behalf. “Our testimony voices this support, but with the caveats that the bill should explicitly leave the Park Service with the full suite of tools for managing paddling in an environmentally sustainable manner, in concert with other similar uses. We’re confident that the park managers can protect the parks’ natural resources and allow managed paddling just as other parks do.” Colburn adds that of all the national parks in the U.S., a similar “blanket ban” applies only to Yosemite. “Yellowstone has the largest block of rivers in the country that is prohibited to paddling,” he told High Country News. “It’s an anomaly in the entire national park system.”
Lummis said in testimony that she’s open to changing the bill’s language to make the Park Service more comfortable and give park superintendents the authority to make decisions on what gets open how and when.
Those in favor stressed the fact that the law banning paddling is completely outdated and from a different era that shouldn’t apply any more. In his testimony, bill co-sponsor Rob Bishop (R-Utah), also the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, said that the law is “no longer a viable excuse and now serves only to exclude the public from enjoying an important national resource.”
Adds Colburn: “Those old regulations don’t make sense anymore. There are plenty of ways to prevent overfishing without prohibiting boating.” The bill came about, says Pruzan, largely in part from pressure from the American Packrafting Association, based in nearby Wilson, Wyo., and the lobbying of Lummis by its vice-president, Thomas Turiano. “They kind of got the ball rolling on it,” he says, “and got in touch with Lummis.”
It’s also a result of the parks completing a three-year Snake River Management Plan to address recreation permitted within their boundaries. But Colburn says Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks couldn’t address the paddling aspect of it because previous regulations prevent it.
At stake is far more than whitewater’s crown jewel in the Grand Canyon and Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, a Class V self-support run that until now has only be run by “pirate” paddlers. Stand-up paddlers, canoeists and the lobbying pack-rafters all have vested interests in paddling in the park. And all supporters feel it has to be sustainably managed. “Any use of the park has to be sustainable,” says Colburn. “I think boating can be.” Adds Pruzan, who supports changing the language to give superintendents authority to manage paddling as they do other recreation: “There are plenty of places
in Yellowstone where paddling could be allowed without adverse effects on water, fish, wildlife or other visitors. There’s a wide range of water in both parks appropriate for paddlers of every skill level.”
Idaho-based big-water pioneer Rob Lesser, who poached the Grand and Black canyons of the Yellowstone twice in his kayak, and got caught both times, says even the dialogue is a stroke in the right direction. “Just the threat of a rule change changes the tenor of the subject 180 degrees,” he says. But he says it will likely be an uphill paddle, and that multi-use, instead of placating a handful of adrenaline-crazed whitewater kayakers, will be the way to approach it “Expect the parks to put the conservation organizations at one another’s throats,” he says. “The Greater Yellowstone Coalition was the chief opponent of opening the rules the last time they reviewed it. Every effort must be made to portray floating as a natural and non-impactful form of wild country use. It should not be a case of yahoo kayakers just out to get their jollies. Think pack rafters traveling the Yellowstone backcountry via the river systems…it offers such a richer experience.”
Colburn agrees, adding that it’s far from just the Yellowstone River that’s at stake. “As currently envisioned, the parks would have to consider paddling on all rivers, and impose limits where deemed necessary,” he says.
“It’s far too early to predict what those limits might be. Suffice it to say that Yellowstone has it all, from family float trips to backcountry packrafting and spectacular Class IV-V creek boating, all through an iconic
and unique landscape. It is an amazing treasure trove for river enthusiasts. As for the Yellowstone itself, it’s impossible to know what the NPS would deem appropriate on different sections of it — each section has different
issues and opportunities.
Pruzan adds that the parks could use their existing permit structures already in place for lake paddling (in Grand Teton), that it wouldn’t require any new facilities, and that access and fees could be managed
through an online reservation systems. Superintendents could also still control what sections to close waters to protect wildlife. American Whitewater led an unsuccessful campaign to open the park to paddling in the mid-1990s, to no avail. “We’ve been beaten down on this issue before,” says Pruzan, a former board member of AW. “In the ’90s when we tried they basically threw it out and it never got anywhere.”
Its main opponents, most feel, will be the parks themselves, as well as The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), says Colburn. The Park Service feels its resources are tight, with plenty of other rec users
wanting access. With its primary goal protecting the environment, Chief Ranger Tim Reid told High Country News “our charter is not to accommodate everything that comes down the pipe” and that an activity has to prove it
belongs and won’t impact resources and values. Then it’s subject to a review process that can take years, as it did for snowmobiling. As for Lesser’s claim that the GYC likely won’t condone paddling in the park, the
coalition’s conservation director Mark Pearson told HCN, “There’s no conservation benefit. It’s nice for the national parks to be this one last bastion of places where it’s not a sort of anything-and-everything-goes
kind of playground.”
With opponents lined up like rapids in the Black Canyon, the jury’s out as far as the timing as to when it might ever be allowed. “The bill has a shot, and it could pass the House within the nextcouple months,” says AW’s
Colburn. “But the Senate is anyone’s guess.”
If it does pass both House and Senate, it would next have to go into National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) sessions, says Pruzan, who has been down this road before with the Snake River Management Plan. And that
process could potentially take years. “But the important thing is at least we’re talking about it again,” he says. “Ideally, I’d like to see them pick a couple of rivers as a pilot program and see where it goes from there. I’m hoping we’re on the edge of a paradigm shift in the way some of these parks are enjoyed.”
As for timing, if the bill passes, which would occur next spring at the earliest, it would then have to go into National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) sessions, says Pruzan, which could potentially take years. “But at
least we’re talking about it again,” he says.
Read Pruzan’s testimony here:
Paddlers urged to contact their representatives here to express support: