Paddlers want onto 'the Everest of rivers'

  • The Yellowstone River in the Black Canyon

    Nat'l Park Service photo/Jim Peaco

The Black Canyon of Yellowstone National Park seems to swallow the Yellowstone River in one gigantic gulp. From the canyon's mouth, rapids turn the river into a powerful torrent that careens into Gardiner, Mont., the north entrance to the park.

Mention the Black Canyon to many experienced boaters, and their eyes will glimmer and private smiles cross their faces.

Some call the Yellowstone the Everest of rivers. But unlike Mount Everest, the Black Canyon is closed to recreationists. Since 1950, Yellowstone Park has banned all boating on rivers within park boundaries. Nonetheless, many people sneak kayaks into the park at night and paddle the expert-level whitewater by moonlight.

Now, paddlers are pushing to boat in the park legally. American Whitewater, a group devoted to securing whitewater access for boaters, submitted a proposal to Yellowstone officials this fall to open the Black Canyon, along with sections of the Lamar, Gardner and Lewis rivers, to whitewater kayaking.

"Yellowstone has over 400 miles of incredible rivers which are entirely off-limits to the boating public," said Jason Robertson, access director for the group. "This is not consistent with National Park Service policies which are designed to promote human-powered recreation."

The proposal has raised a surprising cry of opposition from conservationists.

"Opening the rivers to whitewater boating, when the park is strapped for resources and overrun with high-impact activities like snowmobiling and 3 million visitors a year, would result in an ecological and administrative nightmare," said Jon Catton, spokesman for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Drawing the line

Park officials are quick to side with the coalition. In recent years, visitors to Yellowstone have found aging pipes spilling sewage into rivers and lakes, crumbling roads being closed because they are no longer safe, and park rangers barely keeping up with ever-increasing demands of law enforcement and resource protection.

"This is not something we are in a position to do at this point," said park spokeswoman Cheryl Matthews. "Our staff is already busy working on environmental impact statements for winter use and bison management. We're also trying to fix our ailing sewer system and rugged roads."

Ten years ago, she said, the Park Service studied proposals for allowing more boating areas in the park, but decided against it.

The areas in the proposal are pristine, added Matthews, and many are used by grizzly bears and whooping cranes, endangered species.

American Whitewater's John Gangemi insists that his group's 72-page proposal accounts for wildlife by limiting boating to late summer months, when critters have retreated to higher ground.

"You have unlimited fishing, you have unlimited hiking, and yet they accuse boaters of having impacts they've never even studied," he said.

"There's just no way that the impacts caused by a kayaking program couldn't be adequately managed," agreed Jackson Hole resident Armando Menocal, one of the founders of the Access Fund, a group that fights for access for rock and ice climbers. "The impacts from kayaking are nothing compared to the impacts of hiking."

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition agrees that kayaking is a low-impact form of recreation, but it's calling on boaters to look beyond their immediate desires.

"Yellowstone was not meant to be a playground without limits," said Jeanne-Marie Souvigney, GYC's park policy specialist. "If the Park Service says yes to whitewater kayaking, someone else would want permission to canoe the park's flat water. The heart of this issue is that we can't all do exactly what we'd like to do and have Yellowstone continue to be what it was meant to be."

The Park Service has said it will consider the proposal.

Rachel Odell reports from Jackson, Wyoming.

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