MIke Fiebig paddles past a waterfall tributary on the South Fork of the Shoshone, Wyoming. He took out at the Yellowstone Park boundary just downstream. Photo by Jim Harris.
MIke Fiebig paddles past a waterfall tributary on the South Fork of the Shoshone, Wyoming. He took out at the Yellowstone Park boundary just downstream. Photo by Jim Harris.

Yellowstone: Love it, or leave it alone?

Yellowstone National Park contains a trove of unexplored rivers. Whether to open them to boating has caused a rift between paddlers and conservationists.

Above: Mike Fiebig paddles past a waterfall tributary on the South Fork of the Shoshone, Wyoming. He took out at the Yellowstone Park boundary just downstream. Photo by Jim Harris.

By Scott Willoughby

Since the Corps of Discovery first mapped the Missouri River drainage in 1805, the doors have been wide open on river exploration in the American West. Open, that is, just about everywhere except the wild heart of Lewis and Clark country in what is now Yellowstone National Park.

“Every other national park unit has found a way to make paddling work, but at Yellowstone they refuse to even study it.” — Aaron Pruzan

Rivers radiate like spokes of a wheel from America's first national park, rotating from the Clarks Fork and Shoshone to the east, the Snake to the south, Fall River to the southwest, Madison and Gallatin to the northwest and the namesake Yellowstone to the north. Between them lie arguably the most abundant opportunities for whitewater exploration in the nation.

Paddlers would be tempted to assume that all of Yellowstone's 7,000-plus miles of rivers and creeks have been thoroughly investigated long ago, and many of the most navigable segments have. But for more than 60 years, river runners have been banned from all but five river miles within Yellowstone National Park. For the modern recreational paddler, there may be no larger collection of unexplored rivers remaining in the continental United States.

FORBIDDEN FRUIT: The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is off-limits to paddlers. Photo by David Spiegel

FORBIDDEN FRUIT: The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is off-limits to paddlers. Photo by David Spiegel

"For years I've been paddling rivers that flow into the park, and right now you have to take out at this arbitrary line at the boundary," says Forrest McCarthy, a founding board member of the American Packraft Association based in Wilson, Wyoming. "The attraction for me is the opportunity for these kinds of wilderness backpacking trips with a packraft—a real Alaska-style wilderness trip. Aside from Yellowstone, the Bob Marshall Wilderness may be the only other place in the lower 48 where you can do that kind of wilderness travel."

After years of frustration, McCarthy, the APA and a group of boaters in the region have been rallying support for the Congressional efforts of Wyoming Representative Cynthia Lummis to reopen several hundred miles of rivers through legislation known as the Yellowstone and Grand Teton Paddling Act (H.R. 974). Proponents point out that hand-propelled boating — defined as canoes, kayaks and rafts using paddles — is allowed in federal wilderness areas and all U.S. national parks outside of Yellowstone.

The bill would maintain the ban on commercial boating while opening some 700 miles of rivers and streams in Yellowstone and nearby Grand Teton National Park to recreational paddling. The bill was approved by the House Natural Resource Commit- tee in October and was awaiting consideration by the full House as C&K went to press. If passed into law, it would open 37 segments of river to regulated paddling in Yellowstone and 13 stretches in Grand Teton. Those stretches, considered the most desirable to paddlers, comprise about 10 percent of the paddleable rivers in the two parks.

MORE LIKE THIS: Moe Witschard on the South Fork of the Shoshone, upstream of Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Jim Harris.

MORE LIKE THIS: Moe Witschard on the South Fork of the Shoshone, upstream of Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Jim Harris.

Lummis says the bill would remove the 60-year-old federal ban on paddling in Yellowstone, which was originally implemented to protect the park's streams from overfishing. "If passed, the end result will align Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park with other national parks across the country that offer this low-impact way for the public, and especially America's youth, to have truly unforgettable experiences," Lummis says.

The unconventional tactic of attempting to legislate access to rivers in these iconic parks has proven divisive among the conservation community, with outspoken critics arguing that legislation overrides the authority of land mangers responsible for maintaining the character of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Opponents of the bill, including the National Park Service and a who's- who of influential conservation groups, contend that paddling would intrude on pristine wilderness, above and beyond activities such as fishing, backpacking, and horseback riding, which are currently permitted in the parks' backcountry.

Conservationists also say that allowing paddling in Yellowstone would set a dangerous precedent for other special interest groups, such as snowmobilers. That suspicion is bolstered by Lummis's record of enthusiastic support for legislation favorable to ranching, timber and energy interests. McCarthy acknowledges that the Republican lawmaker is an unlikely ally of wilderness-loving paddlers, but points out that Wyoming only has one Congressional representative.

Moe Witschard scoops a drink from Atlantic Creek. Photo by Jim Harris.

Moe Witschard scoops a drink from Atlantic Creek. Photo by Jim Harris.

Backers of the bill say legislation is the only way to get Yellowstone managers to consider, or even discuss, paddling in the parks. They point out that virtually all of the rivers included in the bill are either roadside or trailside, and park managers would have the final say in drafting river regulations, permit processes and seasonal closures.

"I don't like the idea of legislation at all. This should be a conversation about how we can come up with a plan that works for everyone," said Aaron Pruzan, owner of Rendezvous River Sports in Jack- son, Wyoming. "But to say that it's legal and okay to walk down the riverbank in waders to fish, or to lead a pack train of 20 horses through the Upper Snake River or a troop of Boy Scouts on a backpacking trip along the river — to say you have the ability to manage all that, but not paddling, is just lazy. Every other national park unit has found a way to make paddling work, but at Yellowstone they refuse to even study it."

McCarthy points to Montana's Glacier National Park as an area with similarly exotic fauna, including wolves and grizzlies, where legal paddling has not had any discernible impact on wildlife. Likewise, Yosemite National Park in California opened portions of the Merced and Tuolumne rivers to regulated paddling in 2015, recognizing a phrase coined by advocacy group American Whitewater: "A river is a trail and a boat is a backpack."

"To open up the river was an effort, but a worthwhile effort as long as we can protect the values that the Park and Merced River Plan were established for," Yosemite's Chief Ranger Kevin Killian said on the inaugural float of the Merced last summer.

Killian's philosophy of inspiring advocacy through the intimate experience of paddling stands in stark contrast to the "hands off" preservation policy applied to would-be paddlers at Yellowstone. But on this 100th anniversary year of the National Park Service, Killian is not alone in his conviction.

"River paddling has long been recognized as an appropriate use of wilderness in our national parks and monuments," McCarthy said. "Yellowstone shouldn't be managed as a drive-through zoo. It should be managed as a wilderness experience, and that includes paddling rivers."

— This story first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Canoe & Kayak