The head of the National Park Service is “strongly opposed” to proposed legislation that would open rivers in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks to paddlers, saying the bill caters to “the benefit of a very select few.”
In a Nov. 13 letter to Rep. Bob Bishop (R-Utah), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said the bill would hamper his agency’s ability to properly manage Yellowstone’s rivers and other natural resources.
Introduced by Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), H.R. 974 would require the Park Service to establish rules for the use of kayaks, canoes, rafts and other “hand-propelled” watercraft on 50 specific river segments in Yellowstone National Park and parts of Grand Teton National Park that are not currently open to paddling.
The bill was approved last month by the House committee, but its fate is uncertain. It could be ignored during a busy year-end session of Congress, or included as a rider in a wide-ranging federal spending bill.
While many national parks allow recreational paddlers, Yellowstone restricts such use to lakes, banning all paddlers from the park’s rivers and streams. In Grand Teton, paddling is allowed on some lakes and a 26-mile segment of the Snake River.
Jarvis said in his letter that Yellowstone’s rivers are unlike any other scenic resource in the country, and are home to sensitive and endangered fish and birds. Opening rivers to paddlers would also increase the risk of transmitting aquatic invasive species, he said.
If the bill is passed, “the interests of a small group of recreational paddlers would be placed above those of all other Americans and above the protection of these fragile resources,” Jarvis wrote.
Yellowstone already allows paddling on almost all of the park’s lakes, and issues 2,000 permits annually for non-motorized boating, Jarvis wrote.
Park advocates have criticized the bill for how it forces the Park Service to address the issue of paddling in Yellowstone, saying it sets a bad precedent and amounts to Congressional meddling in how park resources are managed.
Stephanie Adams, Yellowstone program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said opening Yellowstone’s rivers to paddlers could “damage native trout habitat and serve to disrupt prime habitat for endangered grizzly bears.”
Backers of the bill say Yellowstone managers have repeatedly declined to engage them on the matter, citing a 1950 paddling ban as prohibiting them from considering allowing paddling, or even studying the issue.
Lummis said the paddling ban is “no longer applicable” and amounts to “outdated regulations (that) have prevented responsible public enjoyment of these waterways.”
“I took great care to ensure the Park Service has the time, resources, and public input necessary to write a responsible management plan,” Lummis said in a written statement.
Under the proposed law, the Park Service would retain management over paddling and set rules based on environmental reviews. Commercial rafting would not be allowed on any newly opened rivers or streams.
Lummis said the bill would “align Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park with other national parks across the country that offer this low-impact way for the public, and especially America’s youth, to have truly unforgettable experiences.”
Excluded from the list of rivers proposed for paddling are most of the Teton high country, Hayden Valley, Lamar Valley, Firehole River through the geyser basins and Gibbon River, according to the American Packrafting Association, which has lobbied Lummis on the legislation.
Brad Meiklejohn, Packrafting Association president, said that anglers, hikers and equestrians already frequent many of the rivers paddlers want to use, and that Jarvis has “has prematurely and inappropriately drawn conclusions” about paddling “without his agency ever having done a thorough analysis.”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].