A little paddling won’t hurt the Yellowstone experience

Paddling bill is bad news for Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks

If we’ve gained any strength as environmentalists, it’s because we’ve stuck to science and public processes. The other stuff is for the bad guys who want to exploit public land for profit.

As a longtime activist on forest issues, I could give you lots of reasons why you should listen to me. But I’d much rather have all of us looking at the actual facts of any environmental case. That’s been our winning hand for the last 50 years.

That’s why I was discouraged recently when a controversy erupted over allowing kayaking inside Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. It started when environmental recreation groups such as American Whitewater petitioned Yellowstone Park to re-evaluate its policy regarding recreational paddling through the parks’ waterways.  Currently, such use is mostly forbidden, but not because of kayaking. Much of Yellowstone was closed to boating in the 1950s because of overfishing.

This is not a new fight: American Whitewater has sought more permissive management of paddling in Yellowstone for several decades. Initially, the group asked that paddling be allowed on the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River as well as a few other places.  Most of these runs are wicked hard; on a scale of I-VI, they’re solid Class V and only passable by a few. So allowing these paddle runs would provide an incredible experience for those qualified to do it, yet not one that would attract the masses. Nor would it attract what some environmentalists have deemed the “beer and bacon” crowd. (And we wonder why we get accused of being elitists.)

More recently, American Whitewater asked that Yellowstone National Park include in its management plan the opportunity to paddle five newly designated wild and scenic rivers in Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks. What unspooled after this request was the Yellowstone superintendent refusing to allow any public process; the draft plan did not consider even limited paddling. That led to some local folks approaching the Wyoming congressional delegation.

Perhaps they were naïve; no one would accuse Republican Rep. Cynthia Lummis of being too green. But the Wyoming delegation is the local delegation. They’re the people you go to when you can’t get a fair hearing from administrators of our public lands.

And then, out of the woodwork, came the self-appointed environmental illuminati, and instead of looking at the process as being remotely valid, people like Mike Clark, former executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, started calling kayakers “poachers.” Lacking their own environmental street cred, paddling opponents also began channeling deceased environmentalists, like Wilderness Society notables Olaus and Margaret Murie, to make their points.

Nowhere would anyone talk about the facts of the issue, which was the marginal use of a few kayaks on a few rivers for a few weeks each year, a use that should be studied -- not demonized.

Recently, a bill passed out of the House of Representatives demanding a fresh look at the issue, including new regulations on paddling rivers in Yellowstone.   American Whitewater, an organization dedicated equally to conservation and access -- its members have done as much for in-stream flows as any – backed out of supporting a completed version through the Senate, presumably because of the unhealthy controversy. Meanwhile, the insults keep piling up. If you listen to the enviro crowd in Bozeman, Mont., kayakers aren’t just lowbaggers; they are the spawn of Satan himself.

As a boater who cut my teeth on timber activism by kayaking pristine rivers, I’m appalled. One of the things I learned by paddling down White Sand Creek (now called Colt-Killed Creek) on the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho, was that the water was incredibly clean. The gin-clear waters of that headwater stream to the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers, both charter members of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, moved me to dig deeply into the science of water quality as well as activities like clear-cut logging that would affect it. That science led me to develop expertise on landslides. That meant I had to learn how to communicate my findings all the way up to then-Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck, about the harmful effects of deteriorating roads on our national forests. And that led directly to the road-building moratorium on national forest lands in the late ‘90s.  Science won the day, and I credit boating with beginning my education.

None of that’s here in the Yellowstone fight. You’ve got some environmentalists defending an anachronistic policy decision to shut out a use they don’t understand, and don’t care about.  They’re misrepresenting the issue, and toadying to authority. They’re also likely to win.  But when you live by bullying tactics, you also die by them.  That’s a bad precedent to establish as your baseline practice when a real threat to Yellowstone comes rolling along.  Because one will.

Charles Pezeshki is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He writes in Pullman, Washington.

Correction: A previous version of this opinion piece stated that American Whitewater is now on board with the bill that passed out of the House of Representatives, when in fact it is not.

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