Packrafters paddle outside Grand Teton National Park. A bill proposed by Rep. Cynthia Lummis could open the park’s rivers to paddling. (Photo courtesy Thomas Turiano — Click to Enlarge)

Paddling bill makes waves

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton
—December 10, 2013

The first time Aaron Pruzan visited the Grand Canyon, he did a typical driving tour, stopping at pullouts. At one point, he looked down at the river. New to kayaking, he vowed to return and experience the canyon from the river.

He came back four years later and ran the river. Paddling, he realized, has the power to provide a deeper connection with the landscape.

It’s an experience he wants for himself and others in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, the two national parks that don’t allow paddling on most of their rivers.

A bill recently introduced by Rep. Cynthia Lummis could change that. H.R. 3492  is meant to grant the park service the authority to study and consider paddling in the parks, Pruzan said. But not everyone sees it that way. Some see it as an affront to the land managers and a dangerous precedent that uses legislation to circumvent decisions user groups don’t like. Some worry about paddling in the parks ruining view sheds, backcountry experiences and even having adverse environmental impacts.

The two-page bill isn’t written clearly, said Scott Christensen conservation director with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. The coalition interprets it as stripping decision-making authority away from the park service.

A packrafter paddles the Greybull River. Paddlers want the rivers in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park opened to non-motorized boating. (Photo courtesy Thomas Turiano).

The National Parks Conservation Association also “strongly opposes” the bill as written, said Bart Melton, Yellowstone program manager.

“Forcing the park service into a position where they have to consider a specific user group is not what congress had in mind when they set Yellowstone and Grand Teton aside in the first place,” Melton said.

The bill isn’t meant to take power away from the park service, but instead allow it to consider opening rivers to non-motorized boating, said Pruzan, owner of Rendezvous River Sports in Jackson. Paddlers have been told that park staff can’t evaluate paddling because regulations are already in place that prohibits it, he said.

“I don’t think anyone wants to take away management responsibility from the managers on the ground,” Pruzan said. “This is more giving it back to them.”

The bill is currently under revision, said Kevin Colburn, National Stewardship Director with American Whitewater. He hopes the new language is clear in that it’s meant to allow the park service to consider and study paddling, not mandate management.

“We don’t think any use should be legislatively required by congress,” he said.

The park service has not finished studying the proposed bill and its ramifications, so it does not have an official stance, said James Doyle, the National Park Service’s Intermountain Region Chief of Legislation.

Doyle didn’t offer a reason as to why paddling is not allowed on most of the rivers in the parks, but did say the park service supports recreation opportunities and boating is allowed on much of the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park.

That stretch of river isn’t enough, paddlers say. At stake are stretches of scenic water and world-class whitewater runs like in the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone where there are 27 miles of class three, four and five whitewater, Pruzan said. The water runs trailside for much of stretch, and there are already campsites in the area.

“(Banning boats on it) is a little like saying people can’t climb the Grand Teton,” Pruzan said. “It’s hard to say any kayaker is more impactful than a fisherman, walking along the riverside or on the river bottom.”

Yellowstone is a roadside park for most visitors. Boating offers a new way for people to connect with the landscape and get a new generation excited about rivers, parks and conservation, he said.

“I don’t think we are ideologically opposed to paddling,” said Christensen with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. Christensen is a paddler himself. The worry is that it’s a a complex issue that shouldn’t be dealt with legislatively.

“These are some of our most pristine waterways in the park, and if any new use is going to be allowed they need to be carefully studied,” he said.

The problem, paddlers argue, is the park service won’t study it.

Paddlers, as a user group, are ignored, said Thomas Turiano, vice president of the American Packraft Association. Yellowstone conducted a brief and limited study in the 1980s, but other than that the park service has refused to consider it in the two parks. There are numerous rivers, including those with wild and scenic designation, that flow through wilderness or sensitive areas that allow paddling, even if its restricted with a small number of permits.

“Every other park and every other forest has figured this out, and Yellowstone can too,” Turiano said.

A packrafter paddles on the Greybull River. Paddlers say their sports are low-impact and should be allowed on the rivers in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. (Photo courtesy Thomas Turiano)

Pruzan wants a discussion about the paddling ban, which went into place in the 1950s to protect overfished rivers. Fishing has since been allowed again on the rivers, but boating hasn’t.

Jesse Logan, a retired scientist who taught at Colorado State University and Virginia Tech and worked for the Rocky Mountain Resource Station, called the bill “horrible.” He lives in Immigrant, Mont., near Yellowstone National Park.

One of his biggest environmental concerns is with packrafting, where backcountry users carry inflatable boats in backpacks and can move to different areas by boating and hiking. Moving the boats from one drainage to another allows for the introduction of exotic species that cling onto the boats. It also deprecates some of the last truly wild areas in the United States, he said. Right now, visiting the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, people get to see what Lewis and Clark first saw – untrammeled wilderness.

“Rafting is really a game changer,” Logan said. “I’m of an opinion that wildness in wilderness has a place in this world. There is a value of wildness and wilderness in and of itself, and it’s becoming increasingly valuable because it’s becoming increasingly rare.”

While no one is asking for commercial guiding, Logan is certain that will follow. Other parks might allow paddling, but that doesn’t mean Yellowstone must. It’s a different and fragile ecosystem, he said.

Colburn, with American Whitewater, understands people are uncomfortable with a bill to address paddling. At the root of the issue is simply the chance for people to float or paddle down a river in some of the area’s most special places.

“That is why we are having this conversation,” he said. “That experience is really valuable and powerful.”

—“Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton

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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. In a 2000 letter from the Park Superintendent to American Whitewater the NPS explained that boating would “adversely impact park wildlife, conflict with other park users, impact vegetation, require infrastructure development, and create sanitation and safety hazards, [and] impair park resources and values.” Paddlers provide no evidence this is not still true and instead argue it is ‘unfair to the. Yet these paddlers argue to the National Parks that motorized boats should be prohibited from rivers frequented by paddlers. What we have is a bunch of paddling brats trying to circumvent the public process used to manage our National Parks.