A murky bill for national park waterways

A Yellowstone paddling bill raises hopes, suspicions.


Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., introduced a bill to nudge Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in the direction of allowing recreational paddlers in their rivers. 

The Yellowstone and Grand Teton Paddling Act mainly calls for a study of the impacts of paddling on certain waterways within the parks. Paddling groups hope the study could help prove that their sports are low-impact and finally win them access to Yellowstone’s coveted waterways.

Black Canyon on the Yellowstone River has long been coveted by kayakers. Photograph courtesy of Todd Burritt.
Of all the country's national parks, Yellowstone and Grand Teton stand out to boaters as the only two that can’t be truly paddled, since a series of 1950s and ‘60s boating bans were passed on most of their waterways to reduce fishing, which was hurting the local fish populations (the exceptions are a three-mile stretch of Yellowstone's Lewis River and a longer section of  Grand Teton's Snake River). The parks have since kept the bans to limit disruption of habitat for sensitive wildlife like grizzlies, which fish along the waterways, and harlequin ducks, which nest, mate and fish there. The presence of people in these habitats has been shown to decrease chances of survival and reproductive success in certain species. But for decades, kayakers have fought the bans, chuting Yellowstone's Black Canyon illegally and calling for negotiation through recreation groups like American Packrafting Association.

“We're conservationists. We're deeply passionate about wild places,” says Brad Meiklejohn, president of American Packrafting Association. “We have to believe that of the 7,500 miles of waterways (in the parks), there are places where paddling won't be disruptive to the wildlife.” Meiklejohn says a study on the impacts of boating in the parks, which has never been done before, is long over due.

“Folks are apprehensive of change in Yellowstone because it's a sacred place. We understand that. But our proposal is very modest," Meiklejohn says. “We’re only asking for about 480 miles (of waterways to be studied).”

No matter what the research finds, Meiklejohn says, NPS will be under no obligation to allow paddling. "We just want to look at the science and see where the chips fall." 

But conservation groups fear it won't be so simple. Sharon Mader, manager of the National Parks Conservation Association’s Grand Teton Office, thinks NPS would be pressured to change their regulations after the study.

"It's being naively portrayed as a study bill,” Mader says. “But the language that's used—‘to promulgate regulations allowing the use of hand-propelled vessels’—that’s seeking a specific outcome. And that outcome may not be compatible with the mission of the National Park Service."  

That’s not the only ambiguous part: While American Packrafting Association only asks for about half of one percent of the parks’ waters to be studied, the bill itself sets a much broader goal, only excluding waters from the study that are either already open to paddling or within the high-alpine areas of the Teton Range—which contains less than 12 percent of the parks’ total area.

“The user groups are saying, ‘We only want this,’ but that is not what the bill says,” Mader explains. Mader and other conservationists say the sweeping language could leave an opening for Lummis or other legislators to force NPS to open waterways, even ecologically sensitive ones, to paddling.

And given Lummis’ conservative record on issues like endangered species protections, logging, energy development and conservation spending, Mader may be rightly suspicious. In a press release, the congresswoman stated that she wants to increase public opportunities in the parks, but didn't provide many other specifics about her intentions. 

Conservation groups fear that the Madison River, which meanders near West Yellowstone, Montana, could become a popular inner tube run. Photograph courtesy of Todd Burritt.
The Grand Teton Paddling Act is Lummis’ second legislative attempt to get the study done. Last year’s version of the bill would have forced the Park Service to conduct the research without additional funding; the new bill mandates funding but does not specify where that money will come from. The new legislation enjoys the support of APA; NPS and American Whitewater are neither endorsing nor opposing the bill. It’s touted as a more modest rendition of last year's bill, leaving NPS with final authority.

"There are millions of acres of public lands that are absolutely open to recreation. But the National Park Service lands receive the absolute highest protection,” Mader says. “The Park Service has a very specific mission, which is different from other public lands, and it’s to protect them."

Kindra McQuillan is an editorial intern with High Country News.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that American Whitewater endorses the bill, but the organization does not support or oppose it.

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