"Paddling Protection Act" Raises Debate Over Wilderness Travel In Yellowstone National Park
Your proposed use of inflatable boats to pass "difficult" areas via the Colorado River is not an acceptable method of travel for backcountry permit holders.
That was the response Dick Griffith received from Grand Canyon National Park officials in 1991 when he sought a permit to use a small, inflatable, 5-pound "pack raft" to float the Colorado River 226 miles through the canyon. Though nearly 64 years old, Griffith ignored the refusal and pushed off from Lees Ferry, Arizona, one March afternoon that year. Though he had to interrupt his trip briefly due to illness, Griffith completed the run, gaining a reputation as an outlaw who had outwitted the park rangers.
Today, packrafting is an acceptable form of travel through the canyon, and it's also allowed in Denali National Park and Preserve, where the park website notes: "Travel by packraft can be both fun and rewarding. Denali's backcountry offers many possibilities for combining a day or overnight hike with packrafting." Which other units of the National Park System are open to packrafting is hard to determine without calling each and every one. Both Canyonlands National Park in Utah and Dinosaur National Monument in Utah/Colorado permit it; Glacier National Park's website is silent on the activity. Olympic, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, and Great Smoky national parks are silent as well. Yosemite National Park's website is silent on the activity, though rafts are permitted on the Merced River in the Yosemite Valley, and there are media reports that it is allowed outside the valley.
Similar acceptance has not been forthcoming from Grand Teton or Yellowstone national parks, though, where the National Park Service's refusal to expand paddling opportunities has been met by a legislative challenge from Wyoming's congressional delegation that opponents fear could open all park waters to paddlers, driftboats, canoeists, and possibly even tubers.
Yellowstone's landscape is world-renowned for its geysers and hot springs, and the surrounding scenic beauty and wilderness character are hard to match, and perhaps even unmatched outside of Alaska. Threading through the park's backcountry, and frontcountry, are creeks, streams, and rivers fueled by springs and snowmelt, some only several feet across, some dozens of feet wide. More than 300 form waterfalls at least 15 feet high, while others meander placidly through the Lamar and Hayden valleys, dotted with trumpeter swans and pelicans, home to cutthroat trout. Bison, elk, moose, wolves and bears are drawn to these streams, as are trumpeter swans, merganzers, and pelicans.
Grand Teton's landscape takes no backseat to Yellowstone, featuring much of the same ruggedness and beauty that greeted mountainmen well more than a century ago. The spring runoff swells not only the Snake River, but Pilgrim Creek, the Gros Ventre River, Pacific Creek, and other tributaries of the Snake River. Bison, moose, pronghorn, and other wildlife are drawn to their waters, from which osprey and bald eagles pull trout.
At the heart of the 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the two parks are surrounded by sprawling tracts of wilderness, official and unofficial, that along with the parks comprise the largest, virtually intact, ecosystem in the coterminous United States. It's a landscape rippling with mountain ranges that in turn are cut by rivers and streams that can serve as backcountry highways for paddlers. Self-reliance is key to wilderness travelers. Being on your own, exploring vast swaths of backcountry while relying on your own wits and abilities to travel, surrounded by some of the most amazing landscapes in the world, is the quintessential goal.
“What is very unique, and this is why I think some of us in the packrafting community have become so passionate about it, doing these multi-river, big wilderness traverses, Yellowstone is right in the middle of all these great wilderness areas where you're legally encouraged to paddle all these great rivers," said Forrest McCarthy, a board member of American Packrafting. "But you have this abstract (national park) boundary. When you’re traveling through the wilderness with a packraft, like a migrating wolf or elk, all of a sudden you get this abstract line, and 'just because' you’re not allowed to pass (that line). In theory, it’d be great if you could continue down Thorofare Creek, down the Yellowstone River, and then walk over to the Heart River and float down to the Snake River.
"There is really nowhere else in the Lower 48 that offers that type of experience where you actually feel like you’re Meriwether Lewis.”
Though the two parks are located in the Lower 48, in a state just a half-day's travel from most of the country, the wildness they cradle exerts a strong pull on packrafters, who see Dick Griffith and Amos Burg (who used a packraft in 1929 to float the Bell and Porcupine rivers down to the MacKenzie River in the Northwest Territories) as the pathfinders of their sport. And that wildness also has a pull on Park Service officials and environmental groups concerned over how this form of adventure travel could impact the parks, their wildlife, and no small measure of their solitude.
But with the open-ended wording of the Paddling Protection Act sponsored by Wyoming's congressional delegation, Yellowstone officials in particular worry about unintended consequences. The two-page measure being pushed by the American Packrafting Association, a group with only about 900 members, is short on specifics. It gives the Interior Department and National Park Service three years to assess the paddling potential of nearly 7,000 stream miles in Yellowstone, and dozens more miles in nearby Grand Teton.
Just surveying those stream miles could take three years, let alone the months needed to produce the environmental reports and craft paddling regulations for the navigable streams. If the Park Service fails to come up with a plan that identifies which sections of streams are open to paddling (by kayak, packraft, canoe, or, ostensibly, tube), all streams in the two parks would be open to paddlers. Drift boats could float the Yellowstone River through the Hayden Valley, canoeists could paddle the Lamar River through its namesake valley, and kayakers could tackle the 50 or so miles of the Yellowstone River from the Lower Falls to Gardiner, Montana. Groups could drift down the Firehole River, the Madison, and the Gibbon, as well as the Bechler, the Lewis, the Gallatin River and more.
"That's a huge problem with the bill," says Kristen Brengel, senior director of legislative and government relations for the National Parks Conservation Association. "The reason that Yellowstone, on the snowmobile issue, could do a new EIS quickly was because they had the old EISes to steer off of. But when you're writing an EIS from whole cloth ... there aren't a lot of parks that you could use any material from them on paddling, whitewater paddling. So they would literally be working on it from the ground up. And getting a staff person up to speed, getting someone to look at other parks, look at those issues there too, to analyze all the wildlife information, all this takes some time. ... They would have to study everything. The bill doesn't specify a specific areas where these folks want to go whitewater kayaking. It says everything. Because it says everything, they'd have to do an EIS on everything."
All told, there are an estimated 7,000 or so stream miles in Yellowstone. Not all of those creeks and rivers would be deep enough, or wide enough, to be navigable. Yet Yellowstone officials say that in its current form the Paddling Protection Act would require them to survey all those stream miles, not only to determine whether they're navigable, but to identify any resource issues, such as sensitive fisheries, critical habitat for other species, such as grizzlies that rely on trout, or thermal features.
"What’s in this for Yellowstone, and the protection of Yellowstone?” wonders Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk. “I understand what’s in it for some people who are really into adventure opportunities on some segments of the rivers that we know they would like to have. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Snake River. We know there are stretches that people would love to be able to paddle on, but those same stretches of river that they’d love to paddle on are the most difficult stretches of river for us to manage.
"Nobody talks about what happens next?" the superintendent went on. "It is an incredible precedent in Yellowstone National Park. But are then the pressures going to start coming for commercial opportunities on these rivers and streams? It doesn’t say anything in the legislation, but is the pressure going to come? And then what about the fact that Congress is trying to regulate uses within a national park? And taking it out of our hands.”
Legislating, or at least politically influencing, park management is not new. Efforts have been underway in North Carolina's congressional delegation to legislatively tell the Park Service how to govern off-road vehicle access at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Pressure from U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock was thought to influence the agency's final Merced River Plan for Yosemite National Park. There have been unsuccessful efforts to legislate an extension of the lease for an oyster farm at Point Reyes National Seashore. And back in the 1980s, pressure from Wyoming's congressional delegation at the time led the Park Service to build Grant Village on the shores of Yellowstone Lake and leave the recreational vehicle campground at Fishing Bridge rather than shut it down and restore the area because of its location in grizzly bear habitat.
Though the Paddling Protection Act, carried by Rep. Cynthia Lummis, passed the House of Representatives, 220-194, it has failed so far to move in the Senate. While the measure was referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, it stalled there. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, tried to get the committee chair, Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Arkansas, to allow it to be marked up in the week before Congress's August recess, but that effort failed. But it's highly likely Wyoming's all-Republican delegation will resume its efforts to move the bill when Congress returns to work in September and, if necessary, next year.
The battle has pitted environmental group against environmental group. Both the National Parks Conservation Association and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition oppose the legislation. The American Packrafting Association, and for a time American Whitewater, endorsed it. American Whitewater retreated to the sidelines after hearings in the House on the legislation.
“It just seemed like the legislation as it was modified was pretty darn benign, and a lot of people were supportive of it," said Kevin Colburn, the national stewardship director for American Whitewater. "And when it passed the House, it became clear that it was just going to become a very heated, dogmatic debate that wasn’t really based in fact any more, publicly, and we simply didn’t have the capacity or the appetite to tackle something like that.”
Thought to be closely watching the matter is the International Mountain Bicycling Association, which has wanted to see more cycling trails in the National Park System. If the Wyoming delegation succeeds with the packrafters, the thinking goes, perhaps they'd agree to a similar effort to gain more cycling access.
At American Packrafting, President Brad Meiklejohn said, "(G)oing to the Congress was not our first choice. We had been working for a number of years with the Park Service, trying to get them to look at the issue, allowing some paddling on some rivers in Grand Teton and/or Yellowstone, and we kept getting the door slammed in our face, both by the Park Service and by the major NGOs, including NPCA and the Greater Yellowstone Coaltion.
“I think what really brought it to a head for folks involved with our organization was passage of the Snake River Headwaters Wild and Scenic Act. We thought there would be the perfect opportunity for the Park Service to at least take a look at whether any level of paddling might be compatible on rivers on Yellowstone and Grand Teton that were in that wild and scenic river area," he continued. “And so we were hopeful that they would at least give it a little consideration, and were disappointed when they dismissed it outright, citing the bans that had been in place since the 1950s, saying they were basically tying their hands, saying they couldn’t do it, couldn’t consider it."
The packrafters, Mr. Meiklejohn said, are not looking for across-the-board access to Grand Teton's and Yellowstone's streams, but rather a reasonable discussion with the Park Service that will lead to some stream access.
"We’re not asking for the whole enchilada, we’re not expecting the whole enchilada, we're just asking for a fair hearing," he said. "And that’s really what hasn’t happened at all to date. We think it’s a relatively benign use that does happen in virtually every other national park in the country. It’s not like we’re proposing to ride ATVs through the Sistine Chapel."
Rep. Lummis, who sponsored an early form of the legislation in the House last fall, doesn't understand why the Park Service won't agree to a dialogue with the paddlers.
"I thought they (the paddlers) made a compelling case, that they just want to visit with the National Park Service, particularly in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and on the (National) Elk Refuge (with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) about the ability to paddle on some of the rivers in Grand Teton and Yellowstone that they are currently prohibited from accessing," the congresswoman said. “It seemed reasonable to me that the paddlers should at least be able to sit down with the superintendents of the parks so they could talk about it. There are, for example, places in the Selway (within the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho and Montana), which is a wilderness area, that they can put in on one shore, and put out on the same bank of the river.
"These are people who really do tend to be, they tread pretty lightly on the land, they’re pretty respectful of the nature that they’re using. So it strikes me as putting form over subsistence, to reference a rule and say we’re not even going to consider it because there’s a rule that says we don't need to consider it," said Rep. Lummis. "I want to remove that rule, by statute, thereby at least giving them a seat at the table. Now, the superintendents of the parks may say we don’t want to open up any more waters to paddling, and if that happens, so be it. But at least the paddlers could sit down and make their case with the park superintendents about the places they feel that they should legitimately be allowed to put in and take out during certain times of year."
But Yellowstone, said Superintendent Wenk, long has approached visitation and recreation differently than other parks.
"I think the biggest issue that we have to resolve is sort of one of the tradition of use. Yellowstone is different than many places just because of a tradition of use," he said, explaining that visitors to the park haven't come specifically for "transportation or recreational opportunities" but rather to enjoy the park as it is. "Our streams were closed in the '50s to paddling of all sorts. We've developed the scenic vistas that are incredibly important to people, without boats at this time. Maybe it's a question that needs to be answered at some time, but right now we haven't officially asked that question through a planning process. We've never really had any pressure for it before now. I know that there's just a lot of people who like the way it is."
But what rivers could possibly be involved if the Paddling Protection Act becomes law?
Currently, all but five of Yellowstone's 168 lakes are open to paddling. The only river open to paddlers, though, is the Lewis River Channel that ties Shoshone and Lewis lakes together. In Grand Teton, officials say 85 percent of the waters -- including the Snake River that draws commerical outfitters as well as private paddlers -- are open. Nevertheless, in Grand Teton, packrafters eye Pacific Creek, the Gros Ventre River, and the Buffalo Fork. In Yellowstone, American Packrafting officials have developed detailed reviews of streams in Yellowstone that point to their goals. A "river inventory" prepared by the association lists nearly 70 appealing streams in Yellowstone, from an 18-mile stretch of the Bechler River in the park's southwestern corner to a nearly 24-mile stretch of the Yellowstone River through the Black Canyon, a prized Class V stretch of whitewater, in the northern end of the park. All told, the inventory lists 615.3 miles of river, categorizing individual segments as either "Advanced Wilderness Travel," "Classic Whitewater," "Family River," "Roadside Adventure," or "Wildlife Landscape."
The chart goes on to describe the qualities and attractions of each segment ("fast, fun whitewater, wilderness," is attached to the Heart River, while the 6.8-mile stretch of the Buffalo River in the northeastern corner of the park is described as "remote, extreme paddling"), lists put-ins and takeouts, points out parking areas, and identifies potential administrative problems, such as streams running through Bear Management Areas that can restrict travel at times of the year.
More so, a website run by Mr. McCarthy details some of the major river runs in Yellowstone, and even links to a boastful article written by one member of a trio that ran the Yellowstone River from the Lower Falls out to Gardiner, where they were arrested for their voyage.
These resources give Yellowstone's superintendent little confidence that any paddling plan that doesn't permit access to most, if not all, of these streams would be accepted by the packrafting community.
"I had this conversation with members of the paddling community when they were talking to us about this legislation, I basically asked them this question, ‘If we agree to do the study of paddling in Yellowstone National Park, and you don’t put this legislation in, will you agree that whatever we determine, will you accept it?' And they said no," Superintendent Wenk said. "I have no confidence that unless certain segments get the stretches of river that they’ve stated as very important to them, anything less will be unacceptable.”
But Mr. Meiklejohn, the packrafter's president, says that isn't so.
“We’re looking for a fair hearing. If, at the end of the day, the conclusion is that the impacts are just unacceptable, we will abide by that," he said.
Relatively little attention, at least vocally, has been given to the cost of this plan on the Park Service. A Congressional Budget Office analysis has said it would cost $4 million over five years in the form of the requisite studies the Paddling Protection Act would have the Park Service conduct. At a time of fiscal distress on the federal level, when Wyoming communities had to come up with funds to help Yellowstone crews plow roads to open the park for the spring 2013 season, when Sen. Enzi has asked the Government Accountability Office to recommend ways the Park Service can save money, and when the agency has a maintenace backlog of an estimated $12 billion, where the agency would find $4 million for this initiative is a question hanging in the air.