What will it take to be able to paddle in Yellowstone?

Yellowstone photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Yellowstone photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Kayakers might soon finally be able to paddle in Yogi country.

Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis recently introduced HR 3492, which would eliminate longstanding federal regulations that prohibit paddling on rivers in Yellowstone National Park and on some waters not currently open in Grand Teton National Park. The final say over which rivers would be opened would rest with park managers.

"The intent is not to open all rivers all the time to paddling," Lummis said. "It's to remove a prohibition so paddlers can sit down with the park superintendents and discuss where and when paddling makes sense."

Yellowstone
Yellowstone photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Paddlers were on hand pleading the cause, including Aaron Pruzan, a founding board member of the Snake River Fund, founder of the Jackson Hole Kayak Club, and owner of Rendezvous River Sports in Jackson, Wyoming. Most recently, he was involved in the 2009 effort designating 414 miles of the Snake River’s headwaters as Wild and Scenic Rivers.

"It's exactly the type of activity that our National Park System was set up to support," he testified. "Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks offer some of the best paddling opportunities in the world for all abilities."

And it would be easy, he added. "There's already a boat registration system in place for both parks requiring non-motorized to have permits, which would provide a source of revenue. Backcountry use is also already tightly controlled, so paddlers would need to adhere to current regulations as hikers and back packers do."

Yellowstone officially banned paddling in 1950 to prevent overfishing. Ever since, federal regulations specific to Yellowstone and Grand Teton have limited where visitors can paddle. For the bill to pass, an issue to address is what entity would manage potential paddling in the parks.

"We fully support it, with the caveats that the bill should leave the Park Service with the full suite of tools for managing paddling in an environmentally sustainable manner, in concert with other similar uses," says American Whitewater National Stewardship Director Kevin Colburn, also on hand to testify. "We're confident that the park managers can protect the parks’ natural resources and allow managed paddling just as other parks do."

In his testimony, bill co-sponsor Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, said that the outdated law is "no longer a viable excuse and now serves only to exclude the public from enjoying an important national resource."

At stake is far more than whitewater's crown jewel in the Grand Canyon and Black Canyon of the Yellowstone: Class V self-support runs that until now have only seen "pirate" runs. Standup paddlers, canoeists, and the lobbying pack-rafters all have vested interests in paddling in the park.

Opponents lined up like rapids in the Black Canyon include the parks themselves, as well as the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and Greater Yellowstone Coalition, who feel resources are already tight, says Colburn, adding that the jury's out as far as timing of the bill's potential passing. "The bill could pass the House within the next couple months," he says, "but the Senate is anyone's guess."

If it does pass both House and Senate, it would next have to go into National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) sessions, says Pruzan of a process that could potentially take years. "But the important thing is at least we're talking about it again," he says. "Ideally, I'd like to see them pick a couple of rivers as a pilot program and see where it goes from there. I'm hoping we're on the edge of a paradigm shift in the way some of these parks are enjoyed."

For more info on paddling in Yellowstone

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