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.
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: