By Kelsey Dayton
When Thomas Turiano thinks about a trip into the backcountry, the nearby rivers always play a part.
Years ago, he heard about lightweight boats that compressed in a backpack and he began testing them to see what they could endure. Since then he’s used packrafts to reach remote peaks in the Absaroka Mountains and to explore the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana.
Now whenever he plans a trip, he includes packrafting as part of it — except when he’s in Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Park, something he hopes will change once the park service releases a new management plan to meet requirements with the Snake River headwaters designation as a Wild and Scenic River.
A plan for managing the Snake River, which includes 25 separate river segments, including tributaries that feed into the Snake, is expected to be released May 6, said Chris Church, project manager with the National Park Service.
Paddlers, especially packrafters, are eagerly awaiting the study.
“Not only does it sort of determine the future of paddling in this region, this is a landmark case for packrafting and paddling around the country,” said Turiano who is vice president of the American Packraft Association.
The plan has to bring management regulations into compliance with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. In 2009 the Snake River Headwaters received national designation as a wild and scenic river. The designation, meant to protect the river system, called for a comprehensive management plan for the river, which runs through the Bridger-Teton National Forest, Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. Work on the plan began in 2011, Church said.
The public will likely not see any dramatic changes in how the river is managed in the parks, Church said. The plan proposes continuation of current management, including recreation uses, he said. But whether packrafting will be allowed in new areas in the plan, Church declined to say. It was evaluated and addressed in the plan, but he declined to say more.
“The plan has got to stand on its own,” he said.
The plan, which will guide river management for 15 to 20 years, does look at river use and trends, and outlines everything from concessionaires and private use, Church said. Changes proposed in the plan include some new designs for boat launches for better access, he said.
Once the plan is released people can comment on it through June 30. The Bridger-Teton National Forest is releasing its plan concurrently and the organizations will hold joint public meetings.
The Bridger-Teton will release two plans, an environmental assessment and the comprehensive resource management plan, said Mary Cernicek, spokeswoman with the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The plan looks at the future use of the river and doesn’t require a NEPA decision at this time, she said. Packrafting is allowed in the forest, Cernicek said. The Wild and Scenic designation does not impact current uses, she said.
A final decision on the plans is expected by the end of the summer and changes will be implemented as funding becomes available.
In Yellowstone, any type of paddling on the rivers is not allowed under current management, except on two channels; something Turiano hopes is changed with the new plan.
“Personally I’d like to be able to float the rivers in Yellowstone and personally I don’t think there’s any impact in terms of impact on the environment or the wildlife,” Turiano said. “But I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. I’m a recreationist. I’m a naturalist, but I don’t know if as I float past the grizzly bear it’s going to upset its reproductive cycle.”
Turiano doesn’t advocate for recreation if it hurts the environment, but does believe activities should be evaluated objectively; if something is not allowed, it should be carefully explained and reevaluated once new information is available. Paddling in Yellowstone was studied in the 1980s, but much has changed since then, such as the delisting of endangered species such as the bald eagle.
He expects there should be data from new studies if the ban on paddling is continued under the new management plan.
Yellowstone’s restriction on river recreation is an anomaly among wild and scenic designated rivers, said Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies Director with American Rivers.
The river advocacy group isn’t pushing packrafting, but believes federal agencies should look at all potential recreation to see if it is compatible with conservation goals, Bosse said.
Even though packrafting is still an emerging sport, it is allowed on other rivers with wild and scenic designations, such as on the South fork of the Flathead River in Montana, Bosse said..
In Grand Teton National Park, paddling is allowed on the Snake River with a permit, but not on other rivers. Turiano would love to be able to hike with his packraft and paddle on Pacific Creek or the Gros Ventre River.
Packrafting is low impact. Boat launches aren’t needed. People can exit the river and hike to designated camping spots. It is a sport that can be managed like backpacking, Turiano said. While paddling on creeks such as Pacific Creek, packrafters can travel through the National Forest, but must take out at the park boundaries.
Being able to paddle through the parks would be an unparalleled experience, Turiano said.
In Yellowstone the rivers are flat bottomed made of lava material creating slab-like drops that would be like going down a volcanic slide. The river valleys are wild. In Grand Teton the possibilities of long hikes linked with floats would create a new endless list of adventures.
Turiano doesn’t know how packrafting will be addressed in the plan, but he expects if packrafting isn’t allowed there will be scientific rationale backing up the reasons.
Republished with permission from WyoFile.com. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.