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 firstname.lastname@example.org.