Chalk one up for packrafters and politicians.
It's still a long ways away, but paddling may soon be allowed in current off-limits portions of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
After a year‐and‐a-half collaboration between paddlers, the National Park Service, and the Wyoming Congressional Delegation, Representative Cynthia Lummis (WY) introduced legislation that would lead to analyzing river paddling in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. The Yellowstone and Grand Teton Paddling Act may allow traditional human‐powered river paddling in select parts of these national parks as it is allowed in portions of all other national parks in the U.S. that have river resources.
"We're grateful for the leadership Representative Lummis and her staff have shown on this issue," says the American Packrafting Association's Thomas Turiano, whose 900-member coalition supports the legislation. "We believe this bill reflects the broad interests in conservation and responsible recreation that we all share."
Under the new bill, the NPS will spend three years in public scoping and analysis of paddling on the Parks' rivers, after which they will issue new rules about when and where river paddling may occur. The NPS will retain all of the tools and powers in their mandate to carry out this task, and the legislation prohibits the issuance of any new commercial paddling permits. Paddlers plan to ask the NPS to analyze 480 miles (less than 5 perent) of Yellowstone and Grand Teton's thousands of miles of waterways.
The recommended study list excludes most of the Teton high country, Hayden Valley, Lamar Valley, Firehole River through the geyser basins, and Gibbon River. Paddling constituents will also advocate for "Leave No Trace" backcountry rules and appropriate restrictions, and are not requesting the construction of new roads, parking lots, launches and facilities. Instead, they're asking the NPS to weigh the impacts of paddling alongside the impacts of other river corridor uses, and include paddling when considering a corridor's overall use capacity.
Paddlers will advocate for rivers as "blue trails" and suggest ways to utilize existing infrastructure, such as backcountry permits and fees, in their management plan.
"We have a passion for connecting people and wild places,” says Aaron Pruzan, owner of Jackson, Wyoming's Rendezvous River Sports and a longtime advocate of being able to paddle in both parks. "We've seen the power that river padding has to create a force for conservation. The Yellowstone river running ban was instituted over 60 years ago due to pressure on the fishery brought on by float fishing. The value of simply boating on these rivers deserves reconsideration. Both the riparian corridors and park visitors will benefit from this long overdue study.”
It's not the first time paddlers have been down these waters.
As reported in Canoe & Kayak, 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 was also actively involved in 2009 the designation of 414 miles of the Snake River’s headwaters as Wild and Scenic Rivers. "In the '90s when we tried they basically threw it out and it never got anywhere."
Then, in November 2012, Lummis introduced HR 3492 which would've eliminated longstanding federal regulations prohibiting hand-propelled boating on rivers in the two parks. "The intent is not to open all rivers all the time to paddling," Lummis said at the time. "The intent is to remove a prohibition so paddlers can sit down with the parks superintendents and discuss where and when paddling makes sense."
But the bill didn't pass, despite testimony by the likes of Pruzan that, "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."
American Whitewater was also actively involved in the first bill, as well as in its most recent carnation. "American Whitewater fully supports the elimination of the 60-year old paddling bans," said American Whitewater National Stewardship Director Kevin Colburn. "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."
He added 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 said. "It's an anomaly in the entire national park system."
Click here for map of rivers asked to be analyzed during the scoping process.
–Read about the history of the Yellowstone paddling bill.
–Read an interview with one of the bill’s proponents, former board member of American Whitewater Aaron Pruzan.
Cover photo: Zak Podmore packrafting just outside of Yellowstone National Park. Photo by David Spiegel