Canoeing or kayaking can be one of the most unobtrusive recreational pursuits in the national parks. They leave nothing in their wakes but ripples, are muscle powered, and vent no polluting exhaust.
Yet in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in Wyoming there are places where the National Park Service bans paddlers, places that American Whitewater, a paddling advocacy group, maintains should be open to these silent running watercraft.
As the Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service work on their joint Snake River Headwaters Comprehensive River Management Plan and Environmental Assessment -- a plan needed in light of the recently designated portions of the Snake River headwaters as either "wild," "scenic," or "recreational" under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act -- American Whitewater believes the two agencies must move beyond outdated management approaches and open more rivers and streams in the two parks and adjoining forests.
"The NPS and USFWS have an outstanding opportunity to celebrate the sustainable enjoyment of Wild and Scenic Rivers by revisiting the unnecessary prohibitions on paddling the WSRs," American Whitewater said in comments to the draft planning documents. "Ending these unnecessary and harmful prohibitions would bring the management of these rivers up to legal, professional, and ethical standards. More importantly, it would allow current and future generations of Americans to have an incomparable opportunity to enjoy, learn from, and experience these incredible Wild and Scenic Rivers."
Failing to do so, the group says, is "in direct conflict with NPS and Park-specific management policies and goals. These bans are arbitrary and capricious and are an abuse of discretion."
While the river management plans are envisioned as ways to provide "long-term guidance for protecting and enhancing the entire Snake River headwaters administered by the NPS and USFWS," according to the federal agencies, American Whitewhite maintains the draft plan is frought with flaws, some illegal.
In Yellowstone, paddlers are prohibited from dipping a blade in rivers outside of the Lewis River Channel, which runs a little more than 2 miles from the outlet of Shoshone Lake to Lewis Lake. The lake then funnels the water into the Lewis River, a major tributary of the Snake River that continues on through Grand Teton National Park, to the Columbia River, and eventually the Pacific Ocean.
At Grand Teton, paddlers can ply the Snake River, but are banned from the Gros Ventre River, Pacific Creek, and the Buffalo Fork.
These streams should be open to paddlers, maintains American Whitewater.
"Throughout the National Park System, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks are unique in their treatment of human-powered boating. They remain the only two units in the National Park System which have implemented and maintain such large-scale boating bans," the group said in its 23 pages of comments to the draft plan. "In contrast, most other National Parks with outstanding boating opportunities either actively manage boating (e.g. Grand Canyon) or include it as just another use, subject to the same regulations as other human-powered and non-mechanized recreation (e.g. Olympic, Great Smoky Mountains, Glacier, Denali, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Big Bend, Kings Canyon, Mount Rainier, North Cascades, Sequoia, etc.).
"...Yet, despite the nearly universal accessibility of federally-managed rivers—both Wild and Scenic and others located both inside and outside National Parks—Yellowstone and Grand Teton river policy remains an anomalous example of federal management that bars one of the lowestimpact forms of recreation: human-powered floating. Therefore, in light of the Wild and Scenic designation of stretches inside those Parks, and consistent with the policy mandates of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA) and NPS itself, Yellowstone and Grand Teton have a terrific and mandatory opportunity to revisit their river management objectives on those reaches in the CRMP."
Among the charges American Whitewater makes in its comments are that:
* The Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service "erred in excluding an alternative from further consideration based on a misinterpretation of Section 10(c) of the WSRA."
* The draft management plan "wrongly limits current paddling management based on historic fisheries management actions."
* The draft management plan "failed to include a legitimate visitor capacity analysis in violation of the WSRA."
* The Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service "erred in concluding that paddling conflicts with USFWS mission or policies."
* The two agencies "violated (the National Environmental Policy Act) by excluding an alternative from further consideration because the analysis would not be cheap, easy, or produce an outcome favored by the Parks."
* The draft plan "wrongly concluded that the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and Craig Thomas Snake Headwaters Legacy Act do not suggest that boating should be allowed on Wild and Scenic Rivers."
* The draft plan's "promotion of paddling bans is inconsistent with NPS policy."