Paddling bill is bad news for Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks

How boaters are looking for special treatment.

A little paddling won’t hurt the Yellowstone experience

More than 3 million visitors travel to Yellowstone National Park every year to watch wildlife, fish, backpack and hike, view geysers, and paddle around on Yellowstone’s lakes.  At Grand Teton National Park, 2.7 million visitors come to climb, hike and paddle on the Snake River or on the park’s many lakes. Together, these parks are the ecological core of the larger 18 million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. For 140 years, since the establishment of Yellowstone, these parks have appropriately balanced user-group access with conservation.

But ever since Yellowstone and Grand Teton’s earliest days, groups have lobbied managers for expanded access to park resources. Now there’s a new threat — legislation that would set a bad precedent and undermine science-based decision-making. The pressure this time comes from a bill introduced in Congress by Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., in late 2013.

Called the “River Paddling Protection Act,” the bill has already passed the House of Representatives. It gives the National Park Service three years to change its regulations barring non-motorized boating on rivers and streams. If the agency fails to act in that time, then boating in the two parks will be considered unregulated.

The existence of the legislation might lead one to the conclusion that boaters currently have no access to these parks. But the truth is that, of the 168 lakes within Yellowstone, only five are closed to boating. Both Yellowstone and Grand Teton already allow ample opportunities for paddling. At the same time, they make it possible for visitors to experience other lakes in a pristine natural state.

In Grand Teton, the 26-mile stretch of the Snake River that runs through the park hosts 60,000 paddlers each year. In addition, there are countless extraordinary whitewater paddling opportunities in the rivers and streams within the nearly 15 million acres of public lands surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton.

What would the River Paddling Protection Act do? It gives the National Park Service just three years to analyze the environmental impacts of allowing “hand-propelled vessels” on approximately 7,500 miles of Yellowstone and Grand Teton rivers and streams — roughly three times the length of the

Mississippi River. If the environmental assessment and resulting rules are not in place at the end of the three years, then boaters will be allowed to use park rivers and streams as they see fit until new rules are issued. Further, this legislation would require that the National Park Service consider all types of paddle sports in its environmental review. That means Yellowstone could be opened not just to pack-rafters who want to explore the park’s backcountry, but also to commercial operators: The park would have to consider and potentially provide access to rafting and tubing companies, as well as to any other commercial operator that could argue that its vessels qualify as “hand-propelled.” This could result in a summer flood of commercial rafters and tubers.

Worse yet, this legislation provides no new park funding, although it comes with a substantial price tag. According to the Congressional Budget Office, it would cost the two parks a combined $4 million dollars in the first five years. There’s no new funding to cover the cost of reviewing impacts of new users on wildlife habitat or dealing with invasive species or search-and-rescue response. Simply doing the analysis will be costly and time-intensive for parks that are already financially starved. Keep in mind that last spring, these same parks had to turn to local communities for financial assistance to cover the cost of snowplowing just so they could open on time.

In early 2014, this legislation was packaged with a number of bills that could have negative impacts on national parks and sent to the floor of the House of Representatives. It passed there by a majority vote. Now, it is up to the Senate, where Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., has introduced the bill.

The White House has opposed the House version of the legislation, and we

hope it will oppose the Senate’s as well. The River Paddling Protection Act attempts to elevate the wishes of one user group above those of all the others who visit and appreciate Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and it seeks to do so without regard to sound scientific analysis and cost. This bill leaves one wondering: If we are willing to legislate special access to America’s first national park for paddle sports, who’s next in line?

Bart Melton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He works for the National Parks Conservation Association in Bozeman, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Forrest G McCarthy
Forrest G McCarthy
Mar 27, 2014 03:52 AM
Why then did NPCA oppose the the NPS doing the analysis during the EIS for the Snake River Headwaters Wild and Scenic Management Plan that the NPS was fully funded to conduct?
Brad Meiklejohn
Brad Meiklejohn
Mar 28, 2014 11:43 AM
It is disappointing to see a prominent conservation group like NPCA working so hard to keep Americans out of their national parks. They have taken a scorched-earth approach on this issue that is straight out of "House of Cards" and includes personal attacks, bullying and gross exaggeration.

The reality of the situation is far less dire than Mr. Melton would have you believe. River paddling is enjoyed by millions of Americans in every other national park with navigable rivers. We are not seeking access to 7,500 miles of rivers and streams, as Melton suggests. Only 8% of Yellowstone streams and rivers are suitable for floating, and we agree that even some of those should remain closed to avoid impacts to wildlife, for public safety reasons, and to protect the visitor experience.

River paddlers are not "legislating for special treatment." In fact, river paddlers were singled out of Yellowstone by an arbitrary and anachronistic ban that was put in place in the 1950's to control overfishing. The ban was implemented without public process, without any scientific analysis, and without basis. We are all in favor of the "sound, science-based decision making" that Mr. Melton espouses, but on this issue there hasn't been any. The park service was funded to study river paddling in a recent planning process for wild and scenic rivers in Yellowstone, but they didn't do it because they said the archaic bans tie their hands. It is baffling why NPCA would embrace such a result when the lack of process is indefensible.

It is hard to keep track of the ever-shifting line of rationale that Melton and NPCA deploy on this issue. They trot out nightmare scenarios of drunken hordes of tubers, miles of fences, busted budgets and bands of barbarians champing to bust into Yellowstone right behind the kayaks. It is a dizzying game of whack-a-mole that makes you wonder about the lengths NPCA will go to keep Americans from their national parks.

The money can be found, the issues can be addressed and the problem can be solved. The National Park Service is the best land manager in the world. They manage river paddling in every other park in the nation, and the sky has not fallen.

Brad Meiklejohn, President
American Packrafting Association
Thomas Turiano
Thomas Turiano
Mar 28, 2014 06:24 PM
Dear HCN,

The purpose of the River Paddling Protection Act is so that the Parks can carry out "science-based decision making" instead of arbitrarily shutting out a traditional primitive use of Park waterways. If three years isn't enough time for the Parks to finish their analysis, the Superintendent can keep paddling closed with his Compendium. As Forrest mentioned, funding was allocated for this analysis with the passage of the Snake River Headwaters Legacy Act. In a recent inventory to help the NPS establish a baseline for a paddling analysis, the paddling community has already done a good piece of the analysis by identifying navigable streams and key qualities and issues on each stream. The $4 million figure is probably a very high estimate.

If you measure every blue line on a map of YNP, there are over 7,500 miles of streams by some estimates. The National Park Service (NPS) approximates that there are about 2,500 miles of perennial streams in YNP. In a recent collaborative inventory of the 2,500 miles of perennial streams in YNP, paddlers counted 69 navigable river stretches totaling 611 miles. Hence, we are only asking the Parks to analyze paddling on 8% of the mapped blue lines, and 24% of the perennial streams. Twenty-one of those 69 stretches run free at least 10 miles through the Park; five stretches run for over 20 miles. Only one 3.4-mile stretch (0.5% of YNP navigable rivers and 0.05% of YNP streams) in YNP is currently open to paddling.

In Grand Teton and J.D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway, there are 27 runnable river stretches totaling 133 miles. In that Park, 40.4 river miles (30% of GTNP navigable rivers) are currently open to paddling. While spectacular, these stretches through GTNP have no challenging whitewater that many paddlers seek and they do not provide paddlers a secluded wilderness experience. They have developed boat launches, run parallel to major highways, and allow unlimited private use and high levels of commercial use.

After the Snake River Headwaters CRMP was released, the NPS and NPCA have repeatedly argued that substantial boating opportunities already exist throughout the Snake River Headwaters and adjacent National Forest, and therefore the public interest at large is currently being served. They cite the fact that 351 miles of the total 410 miles (86%) of new Wild and Scenic rivers in the Snake River Headwaters are open to paddling, and that the remaining 14% are critical to provide Americans with opportunities to experience the river environment without seeing watercraft. These statistics are incomplete, misleading, and used out of context.

Firstly, only 46 river miles (11%) of the new Wild and Scenic rivers fall within YNP, and of these, only 3.4 miles are open to paddling. GTNP contains 53 miles of designated rivers, of which 40.4 miles are navigable and open to paddling. Only between 3.8 and 10 miles of these rivers could be considered wilderness rivers, depending on how that is defined. The rest parallel roads and are accessed by boat ramps. Even if the Parks allowed paddling on a handful of these streams, there still would be thousands of miles of rivers and streams in these Parks outside the Wild and Scenic designations for visitors to view without boats floating by.

Secondly, the NPS statement does not show that an estimated 67 miles of designated rivers (16% of the 410 total) are not navigable, an additional 121 miles (30%) either parallel a road or are accessible by road, and an additional 45 miles (11%) are currently closed to paddling. Hence, 57% of the newly designated river miles are not available for wilderness paddling trips. Of the remaining 176 miles of river (43%), only between 7.2 and 13.4 miles are available for remote wilderness river trips on Park lands. The remaining runnable and open river mileage is comprised of a handful of National Forest streams that run for only a short time in the spring and early summer. One river, Buffalo Fork, is runnable into August on an average year. Indeed there are more streams outside the new Wild and Scenic designations in the Shoshone, Custer, and Gallation national forests, but like the Buffalo Fork, they have a limited running season, are mostly beyond the technical ability of most paddlers, and many of them do not provide the wilderness experience many paddlers seek. Yellowstone's wilderness streams run longer into the summer and have a wider range of paddling difficulty…from mellow family streams, to fabulous class 2-3 wilderness runs, to some of the most challenging whitewater in the world. Grand Teton has the best mountaineering and allows it. Yellowstone has the best wilderness paddling, but doesn't.

Paddlers are not asking to be elevated above other users. We are just asking for an opportunity to have a wilderness paddling experience in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. We are not asking for access to every stream. We are asking the Parks and other stakeholders to enter into a constructive conversation about where paddling might be appropriate. Indeed, Yellowstone is a special landscape. No other Park in the US-48 compares to its wildlife and wild landscape. There is no debate there. An in-depth serious look at where, when, and how many will be required to make sure resources are left unimpaired. But, paddlers deserve what NPCA coined as the "Freedom to Float" … the opportunity for an intimate kinesthetic experience on some of these streams and rivers, and I believe there are places to allow this that are perfectly appropriate for regulated paddling. Support the River Paddling Protection Act so we can find out which ones!

I understand this is an emotional issue for many people, conjuring visions of parades of boats, boat ramps, and beer parties. No one who loves Yellowstone and Grand Teton want this scenario. I just can't go down the negative fear road and believe or suggest that the NPS would ever let that happen, simply because it is inconsistent with the values of YNP. That is such an easy NO for the Superintendent. And as for forthcoming Congressional bills wanting access for other uses, this is also an unsupported argument in my opinion. The only reason we have a paddling bill in the Senate is because the NPS failed in their procedural responsibilities with the Wild and Scenic, and because the NPS and conservation groups refused to enter into a conversation with a traditional primitive user group. Please, let's keep the discussion to the facts, keep an open mind, stay positive, and minimize the fear-filled visions. I believe there will be final result that we all can live with.
grant mcbee
grant mcbee
Mar 30, 2014 09:47 PM
   After seven years the USFS assessed and found boating requires limitations to protect other users and the environment on the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River. A SC court upheld the USFS decision.
There are plenty of paddling opportunities outside of Yellowstone, the limits on boating are not only appropriate, they are necessary.
Bernard P Friel
Bernard P Friel Subscriber
Apr 01, 2014 02:00 PM
     What utter nonsense to suggest that NPCA or NPS is attempting to keep citizens from their National Parks.
     What they are doing is keeping those who think so from damaging and destroying the Parks, to the detriment of all US citizens.
     They seem to have forgotten or choose to overlook the provisions of the National Park Service Organic Act (August 25, 1916) which provides in pertinent part:
     " The service (the National Park Service) thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations hereinafter specified,except such as are under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Army, as provided by law, by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of said parks, monuments and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and natural and historic objects and wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
Carolyn Hopper
Carolyn Hopper
Apr 01, 2014 02:37 PM
Paddlers are not kept out of YNP. Just their vessels. Are paddlers who are in favor of expanding paddling experiences in YNP prepared to pay for the $4 million dollar study and implementation of increased paddling experiences in the Park. Prepared to personally pay when any paddler needs rescuing in the back country. Prepared to stop, get out of the river and move away from wildlife who enter the river or lake where they are paddling? Will all paddlers who might be added to the numbers already allowed repair the banks when erosion occurs -- in addition to bank erosion already a problem caused by millions on foot? What will the paddler do if approached by a bison, elk or bear? How does increased paddling help conserve the scenery? natural and historic objects? wildlife? What is the benefit to our National Parks where increased paddling is desired? This is not nor should it be about what humans want.
This is like ATV drivers saying they are kept out of forest and some wilderness lands as if their machines had feelings.
I come from generations of outdoor enthusiasts--paddlers, fishermen and women, explorers into the wilds of N. Ontario, men and women who love to camp out and hunt. They never asked for extra attention, but knew when and where to go that respected the land and all creatures of the wild who depend on wilderness and wild places. And I enjoy many of those activities myself. But I don't cry about not hunting game in YNP or other National Parks. I realize how incredibly fortunate we are that there are places set aside for extra consideration about the wild.
Please paddle on all the hundreds of miles of rivers now open. I know there are many miles available to challenge everyone from extreme athlete to the more cautious.
To sum up - costs? will all paddlers help pay the $4 million? for rescue? Land use -- will all paddlers personally work to restore the banks? Wildlife -- will your first thought be for the wildlife you encounter and their needs? If you can answer yes to all questions then I would be surprised. So until then park your water craft, grab some hiking boots and enjoy all the challenges of the back country.
Jenifer A Johnsrud
Jenifer A Johnsrud Subscriber
Apr 01, 2014 02:55 PM
As a kayaker I'm disappointed to read this article, paddling is allowed in many parks and is a low impact sport especially compared to fishing.
Brad Meiklejohn
Brad Meiklejohn
Apr 01, 2014 03:47 PM
Carolyn Hopper, on behalf of the packrafting community, we answer "yes" to all of your challenges. We will put wildlife first in our travels, we will continue our efforts to protect and restore riparian habitats and we will pitch in to pay our own way.

Brad Meiklejohn, President
American Packrafting Association
Will  McDowell
Will McDowell
Apr 01, 2014 06:21 PM
At the risk of throwing turds into the clear narrative waters of “we deserve the freedom to packraft and kayak ALL wilderness rivers," we should dig a little deeper. Many of us will urge the Park Service to protect unique natural resources against increasing recreationist pressure, to say nothing of reckless illegal kayakers profiled last fall in HCN. Our national parks’ conservation function often includes restricting recreational access to sensitive wildlife areas like grizzly fishing sites, elk wintering areas, trumpeter swan nesting zones, etc.
White-water rivers in Yellowstone are just such a sensitive area. The kayak/packraft community should be aware that the harlequin duck, a unique waterfowl species, breeds only along remote white-water rivers in NW USA and Canada. The harlequin duck is a “species of concern” in Montana and declining south of Canada; Yellowstone National Park is one of its remaining strongholds. Female harlequin ducks nest on the ground right along the banks of clear, fast wilderness rivers like the Yellowstone, and raise their young in the river during July, August and early September before migrating to the sea. They are highly sensitive to human disturbance while nesting.
In fact, biologists cite “human disturbance” by boaters, fishermen and campers as being one of the principal threats to the harlequin’s breeding success. There are only about 20 pairs of nesting harlequin ducks in all Yellowstone National Park—still one of the largest concentrations known in the northern Rockies. Yet they have already abandoned their breeding site at LeHardy Rapids in the Park after recreational access to the rapids was improved in 1993. Glacier National Park long ago closed McDonald Creek to recreational boating, largely to protect the harlequin duck nesting population there.
Increasing kayaker access to remote canyons in Yellowstone will not only disturb harlequins and other wildlife, but also increase fishing pressure, degrade the wilderness experience for those who hike in, increase pollution, and increase rescue/patrol requirements. So, no, we do not all want kayaks in the Park’s canyons, nor bikes on every park trail, nor hang-gliders diving off Park mountains. Some of us like Yellowstone’s backcountry and wildlife to remain truly free—free of the “new …..technologies, skills and impacts…” some are so eager to promote.
Walter Eason
Walter Eason
Apr 02, 2014 07:36 AM
Environmental regulations are suppose to be based on science. It use to be that the public were protected by persons in agencies that are unqualified to make decisions on science or have their own agendas. This is not always true now. Even reports that are accepted by agencies may not be accepted on their own merits, in other words may not be the best acknowledged scientific solution. At this time the only guard against this are the APA procedures. Yes this means public meeting and comment periods. If you do not believe in this which many may not that is OK too. This is law of the land although many seem to prefer to be slaves with no say so then I would guess it is not their fault. If you prefer some form of human supreme ruler OK that is your beliefs. But call it what it is slavery with no say and be happy with what you get.
doug Kretzmann
doug Kretzmann
Apr 02, 2014 09:09 AM
Rep. Lummis is a far-right radical Republican. This bill isn't about allowing low impact private canoe and raft access to Yellowstone: it's about prohibiting all regulation of paddle craft, which as Bart points out, will liberate commercial raft operators to turn the rivers into a carnival of profit. See the bill summary at:[…]/147184
"Declares specified regulations regarding vessels on streams and rivers in Yellowstone National Park and on lakes and rivers in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming to have no force or effect with regard to hand-propelled vessels. Prohibits the Secretary of the Interior from issuing substantially similar regulations that apply to such vessels. "

This is standard procedure for Rep Lummis who also believes that oil companies should be able to frack as they please, unimpeded by any federal regulation (HR 2728) and that all national forests should be logged for private profit (HR 1526). It's unlikely in the extreme that this paddling bill will be innocuous. Somewhere in Rep Lummis' background we will find a loose association of rafting companies who are longing to profit off Yellowstone trips.

I am a canoe paddler with decades of experience in both wilderness and whitewater canoeing. I fully support the current regulations in both Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, having paddled extensively in both parks. We have to leave a few miles of river to be wild, for the ducks, fish and other wildlife. No, a 'little paddling' won't hurt the parks, but we already have excellent access for that: this bill is about opening the parks to full commercial exploitation.
doug Kretzmann
doug Kretzmann
Apr 02, 2014 09:28 AM
forgot to mention, American Whitewater is no longer supporting the bill, since "we were concerned that the legislation as originally drafted would have set a bad precedent with National Wildlife Refuge System’s management, and possibly limit the Park Service’s discretion to manage paddling just like all other uses."[…]/
Bud Tugley
Bud Tugley
Apr 04, 2014 01:45 AM
Doug Kretzmann,

Do you really believe AW dropped the bill because they had an epiphany it would set a bad precedent? Really? Two days after they celebrated passing it through the House?

This is another case of big money politics at work in our parks. A few years ago Grand Canyon tried to ban the sale of bottled water, but NPS Director Jarvis called a halt because CocaCola is a major donor to the National Parks Foundation.

The Yellowstone case is a carbon copy. Mike Finley used to be superintendent of Yellowstone but now runs the Ted Turner Foundation. Finley gets to decide who does and does not get Turner money. He has made no secret of his loathing for boaters in Yellowstone. GYC and NPCA get a lot of Turner money. AW still does, too.

We just think we have a say in what happens in our parks. Most decisions are made for us by the people with power and money.

As always, follow the money.
Roman Dial
Roman Dial
Apr 07, 2014 11:42 PM
We have no hope of convincing fundamentalist preservationists that opening Yellowstone to paddling is actually good for the cause -- None. They will continue to hold the high ground, one based on faith and emotion rather than science and fact.

So be it.

But the other outdoor users and enthusiasts out there, especially those under 30 or 40, they are the ones that count anyway, who will protect Yellowstone 20 years from now when it really counts, from real foes, not imagined ones. They are the ones who will see that packrafting is simply water-backpacking, and backpacking is fine in Yellowstone.

We live in a democracy. This is how democracy works.
Ben G Petri
Ben G Petri
Apr 08, 2014 11:31 PM
As a kayaker, I'm deeply disappointed with the National Parks Conservation Association and Greater Yellowstone Coallition with this. While the legislative route was not the right way to go, its upsetting to me that paddlers are viewed by these environmental groups like they are some kind of scourge. This has long been the case in Yellowstone, and is not just limited to the recent legislation. The reason it is so offensive is that in reality, kayakers and rafters are among the very best stewards of public lands. When we travel through the wilderness, we take leave-no-trace to a level far beyond even backpackers as we pack out EVERYTHING, including even human waste and fire ash. In terms of travel, water is the ultimate durable surface to travel on because, well, it's water and we can't leave footprints. We also generate interest in and fight to protect rivers all over the US and the world, which is clutch when the inevitable dam builders, developers, and privatizers show up hoping to cash in on them. Organizations like AW give their all to make sure that wild rivers stay wild, preserved for future generations, and do not all get locked up behind private property lines and arbitrary government policies. There is no small number of National Parks, National Monuments, National Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Forests and BLM lands that have found effective ways to manage non-motorized boating while also providing for protection of endangered species, sensitive ecosystems, and balancing between other recreational user groups without resorting to blanket bans on what is truly a wilderness activity. So when NPS, NPCA and GYC fiercely insist that Americas oldest national park is somehow so different that only a blanket ban on paddling can protect the resource, it does not strike paddlers as some kind of progressive, science-based management policy. Instead, it strike us as NIMBYism. And because we already end up dealing with "NIMBY" from plenty of property owners trying to cuttoff access and claim ownership of public rivers, we get rather irate when we get the same treatment from NPS, NPCA, and GYC. Groups that it they truly are about their conservation mission should be our allies rather than our adversaries.
Martin Hagen
Martin Hagen
Jun 03, 2014 01:36 PM
Very good comments. One aspect of opening up all water ways to non motorized craft, or hand paddling, that concerns me is the potential for increased commercial use. As always, the result would be a sizable increase in use and all the down sides that go with it. I speak from the point of view of one who has paddled up the Yellowstone River from the SE Arm of Yellowstone Lake at the age of 11. When I attempted to repeat the trip as a young man of 25 I was told it was closed due to the Sierra Club loving it to death by taking too many trips with too many people. I speak also as a former river guide for Barker Ewing Scenic Float Trips in Teton Natn'l Park and saw the vast increase in use by guided fishing and illegal float trips. Skiing the Teton Range has become more a "front" country trip than a back country trip due in large part to the increase in commercially guided trips. Now before you stop reading, note that I have nothing against the above mentioned usage. Matter of fact I'ld love to try pack rafting, it's the increased usage through the allowance of unregulated commercial potential that concerns me. As that boy of 11, I remember my dad stopping at the S. gate the morning of our departure to the wilds of Yellowstone to purchase our fire permit for our trip. It now takes applying for a reservation months in advance to get on the lakes of Yellowstone. More usage equates to more regulation it's as simple as that. Something we should all think about before jumping headlong into something that will suit our immediate personal wishes is, no matter how much I miss how simple and truly wild it used to be that is no longer the case. We have to be smarter about how we look to the future so my grand kids and yours will be able to at least go see something of what I saw in Yellowstone "back in '66".