Although it may be unlikely to turn into law, a new bill to open more waterways in Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is currently in a Senate committee.
The proposed measure would lift longstanding restrictions—some of which have been in place since 1971—on the ability for canoes, rafts and other “hand-propelled vessels” to travel on select rivers, lakes and streams. Currently, only a three-mile section between Yellowstone and Shoshone lakes is open to paddlers in Yellowstone, although many rivers in the Tetons are.
The Pro Side
Republican Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis who sponsored the bill said simply in a statement: “It’s time we remove the outdated federal ban on paddling.”
Treasurer of the Jackson Hole Kayak Club, Brady Johnston, and Aaron Pruzan, a whitewater guide and outfitter in Jackson Hole agree. There are plenty of places in Yellowstone where paddling could be allowed without adverse effects on water, fish, wildlife or other visitors.
“It would just allow people to explore Yellowstone differently,” Johnston told Teton Valley News, noting that he would especially like access to the Black Canyon on the Yellowstone River. “It’s world renowned. People all over the world know that river and that run.”
The Con Side
Even though the National Parks Service would have three years to decide which new bodies of water would be open to paddlers, the bill would require an impact study at an estimated at $4 million cost. Coupled with the lost income during the government shutdown in the Fall of 2013, this is a major burden to the NPS. If the study is not completed, all protected waters would automatically open to paddling and other water recreation because no restrictions would be in place
“Think of it, a $4-million tab handed to a park that didn’t have enough money last spring to plow its roads and keep its ranger ranks fully staffed,” said NPCA’s Bart Melton. “Once the door is flung open, it will result in every other user group demanding to be let in, with some wanting to turn it into commercial opportunities.”
There are many good reasons for leaving the lakes, streams and rivers closed to paddlers as well, said Jackie Skaggs, Yellowstone public affairs officer, adding that the park has already analyzed which areas are suitable for the activity. She notes that the park bans human passage in order to protect wilderness, wildlife and of course the paddlers themselves. And some waterways could only be run for a short amount of time.
If the bill passes in its current form, the park service would be required “to go back and review all those areas,” she said.
Another potential downside to opening these waters up is the loose definition of “hand-propelled vessels,” which may include inner tubes or other less conventional watercraft.
“You’re talking about boaters in the Lamar Valley,” Bart Melton, Yellowstone program manager for The National Parks Conservation Association, told the Missoulian, referring to a part of Yellowstone renowned for stunning views and frequent wildlife sightings. “Wolf watching and grizzly watching and fishing are the standard uses there. ... The door this opens is significant.”
On February 10, American Whitewater, the group that asked Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis to champion the bill, withdrew its support.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition has also come out against the bill saying, “It strips away the discretion of the National Park Service and sets a perilous precedent for legislating uses into some of our nation’s most cherished natural areas without a public process or adequate environmental analysis.”
Nay-sayers may not have much to fret over. According to government transparency website GovTrack.us, the bill has only a 20 percent chance of surviving.