A bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis on Friday calls for the National Park Service to create a paddling rule after three years, giving time for studying the impacts of opening waterways in the parks to paddling. (courtesy Yellowstone National Park)

This week, recreation groups came out in support of a new measure in Congress calling on the national parks to study the impacts of expanding the use of paddling on some backcountry stretches of rivers.

Regulations dating back to the 1950s prohibit paddling — such as canoeing, kayaking or packrafting — on most of the rivers and streams in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks to curb overfishing. 

However, opponents to expanding paddling note that the legislation says the National Park Service shall allow for some expansion. They say that usurps the authority of the park service, and opens the door to Congress dictating resource management in the parks without using the proper channels of environmental study and public participation.

“We still have serious concerns about this bill,” said Sharon Mader, Grand Teton program manager with the National Parks Conservation Association. “This is still basically an effort on the part of Congress to override National Park Service authority and congressionally dictate a specific use in a national park.”

H.R. 974 is a bill “To direct the Secretary of the Interior to promulgate regulations to allow the use of hand-propelled vessels on certain rivers and streams that flow in and through certain Federal lands in Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, and for other purposes.” — H.R. 974

U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) on Friday introduced H.R. 974, a bill that would allow paddling on rivers in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. She introduced a similar bill last year that drew support from the American Packrafting Association, and drew criticism from groups such as the National Park Conservation Association and Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

A statement from Lummis’ office said she worked with the Wyoming paddling community and other stakeholders, including the National Park Service, to create the revised legislation.

The bill calls for the National Park Service to create a paddling rule after three years, giving time for studying the impacts of opening waterways in the parks to paddling. The park service would have final say on which rivers might be opened for paddling.

Much of the criticism of the original bill focused on it taking away the park service’s authority to manage resources. H.R. 974 reinforces the authority of the park service to manage waterways within its jurisdiction, say proponents of the bill.

The National Park Service drafted a version of the bill for Lummis, said Dan Wenk, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. The National Park Service doesn’t take positions on legislation, even if it’s a bill they helped create, until it’s been introduced and through a hearing, Wenk said.

“We have no position on it at this time,” he said.

Proponents of the Yellowstone and Grand Teton Paddling Act hope the park service considers allowing paddling on about 480 miles or about 5 percent of Yellowstone and Grand Teton’s rivers.

Wenk said Lummis’ bill is not an exact replica of the legislation the park service drafted, but it was clear she took into consideration some of the park service’s positions. He couldn’t say what specifically was different.

The paddling community will advocate “leave no trace” travel on waterways and isn’t looking for construction of infrastructure, the American Packrafting Association said in a release. For generations, paddling has been a way to connect people to wild places, the group said.

The American Whitewater Association said in a release the bill is designed to help the park service do its job and that a study on the impacts of paddling is long overdue.

Supporters of the bill, such as the American Packrafting Association, said they are not asking for access to every waterway in the parks. They hope the park service considers allowing paddling on about 480 miles, or about 5 percent, of Yellowstone and Grand Teton’s rivers.

Conservation groups are not convinced.

While supporters say the legislation only calls for the park to study paddling, Mader said it reads that the park must allow it. She appreciates that the bill prohibits commercial access, but it’s still not the compromise supporters tout.

The park serviced prohibited paddling in certain areas for good reasons — to protect sensitive and remote habitat, Mader said. If the park feels it needs to protect its resources, it should have that authority.

There are paddling opportunities in both parks, Mader said. They just aren’t the backcountry waters that supporters of the bill want. She said it’s a small interest group pushing for paddling remote national park waters, adding that environmental impact studies will be costly, especially for an already budget-strapped agency.

“Where will this money come from?” Mader asked. “What program loses out?”

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s worries are the same as last year, said Bob Zimmer, water program coordinator for the group.

He also sees the bill as a mandate that takes away decision-making authority from the parks. It’s an issue that shouldn’t be dealt with legislatively, he said.

While other national parks allow paddling, Yellowstone is special and manages backcountry use differently. “Our task is conserving the values and uniqueness of the park,” Zimmer said.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition opposed the 2014 legislation saying it stripped away the discretion of the National Park Service and set a precedent to allow legislation to dictate land management without the proper public process and environmental assessment.

See the River Inventory for Study related to H.R. 974:

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. The driving force behind the paddling legislation is a ragtag volunteer group of paddlers, anglers, backpackers, packrafters, and mountaineers from the northern Rockies with miniscule means compared to the media machine driving the opposition. Rep. Lummis is the Wyoming Representative and has done a fine job representing the interests of her constituents on this issue. The re-introduction of managed paddling to Yellowstone and Grand Teton will be a great gift to the American public as a low-impact means of connecting people to nature. Fears of dirt bikes and ATVs to follow are unwarranted. And since when are small paddlecraft lumped with motorized vehicles?? If you follow the money on the Yellowstone paddling issue, it sadly will lead you to the coffers of powerful environmental groups who seem to have forgotten what inspires a conservation ethic, who have neglected to engage constructively in the issue, and instead incite their members with misinformed rhetoric. Passage of the Yellowstone and Grand Teton Paddling Act will give everyone a chance to weigh-in on a NPS analysis and rule making about paddling. Please visit http://packraft.org/American_Packrafting_Association/YNP-GTNP.html for the full story about the Bill.

    Thomas Turiano

  2. Boats, bikes, dirt bikes, four wheelers… where will it end? Not every place is the right place for everything. Why is Congress even involved in this? Does this have something to do with all of the rich people in glitzy Jackson Hole? Maybe someone needs to follow the money on this one. I smell something fishy, and it ain’t the trout in Yellowstone River.

    Jeremy Taylor

  3. I have enormous respect for Forest McCarthy, American Packraft Association, and American Whitewater. The intial bill as introduced by Rep. Lummis was another attempt by her office to tweak the National Park Service and undercut the NEPA process. Rep Lummis had no history of defending the interests of any non-motorized activity on any of our public lands prior to this legislation. The intent in 2013 was to undercut the NPS with “management by legislation”. I do also believe that the NPS in the last management plan did exclude the backcountry paddlers unfairly.
    If a plan can be put forward that puts wildlife, the water resource, the natural fisheries first and human propelled recreation if possible; I could support a new management plan on certain waterways that are not in critical grizzly habitat. Good work the between the paddlers, NPS, and Rep Lummis staff.
    I am also a cyclist and one of things I know is that my mountain bike doesn’t not belong anywhere and everywhere. Simply becasuse it is human propelled whatever the conveyance, it is the same.

    Rob Davidson

  4. I am on the board of directors of the American Packrafting Association, a member of American Whitewater, and one of the paddlers that has spent the last year and a half working with Representative Cynthia Lummis (WY) and the National Park Service on drafting the Yellowstone and Grand Teton Paddling Act.

    The current bill was written to address concerns raised over the previous River Paddling Protection Act (2013). This includes no changes in regulations until the end of a three-year funded study nor “any expansion of commercial use of hand-propelled vessels in the parks.”

    Additionally, those of us seeking a solution to the archaic and unscientific fishing regulations that banned river paddling, were accused of trying to “manage by legislation.“ For this reason the National Park Service, Representative Lummis, and the American Packrafting Association did not include a list of rivers and creeks in the bill. Instead, the current bill ensures the NPS has full authority to manage all navigable waterways within their jurisdiction.

    Of the 7,500+ miles of rivers and creeks in the two parks less than 5% are navigable or of interest to paddlers. For this reason the American Packrafting Association is requesting the NPS only consider 480 river miles during the study. The specifics regarding what rivers are to be considered and how they are eventually to be managed are best decided, not by congress, but during a three-year study and rule-making process that is subject to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and includes scientific review and public input.

    The intent of the Yellowstone and Grand Teton Paddling Act is not to “manage by legislation.” The intent of the bill is to provide the resources and restore the Park Service’s authority to manage navigable waterways within their jurisdiction. This is a tremendous opportunity to expand paddling opportunities while ensuring it is done in the most ecologically responsible manner.

    Hiking and paddling are the two oldest means of wilderness travel, and combined (known as packrafting) create one of the most eloquent and least impactful ways to experience a wild landscape. Requiring an intimate relationship with both land and water, packrafting has taught me, and many others, reverence for big wild landscapes and the majestic creatures that inhabit them. My experiences packrafting in Patagonia, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the Teton and Washakie Wildernesses are profound, life-changing and core to my advocacy for wilderness preservation. These experiences are also why I support the Yellowstone and Grand Teton Paddling Act.

    Forrest McCarthy