Why Yellowstone Should Allow Paddling

Shoshone Lake, Yellowstone National Park, WY. Photo: Aaron Schmidt
Shoshone Lake, Yellowstone National Park, WY. Photo: Aaron Schmidt

By Eugene Buchanan

In November, Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress that would eliminate longstanding federal regulations prohibiting paddling on rivers in Yellowstone National Park and certain areas of Grand Teton National Park. Flying to D.C. to testify in favor of HR 3492, was Aaron Pruzan, a past board member of American Whitewater, a founding board member of the Snake River Fund, founder of the Jackson Hole Kayak Club and owner of Rendezvous River Sports in Jackson, Wyo. (Pruzan was also actively involved in the 2009 designation of 414 miles of the Snake River’s headwaters as Wild and Scenic Rivers.)

We caught up with him during a break between racking up airline miles and shredding Jackson Hole’s powder with his three kids to ask him more about the bill and Yellowstone as a paddling Mecca.

Way to go to bat for boating in Yellowstone. How’d the testifying go?
Aaron Pruzan: It went well—I have countless hours over the last 15 years volunteering for river stewardship and conservation in the Upper Snake River Drainage and beyond. As part of the conservation movement it was hard for anyone on the Democratic side to question my respect and commitment to the resource. The Bill was introduced by Representative Cynthia Lummis, (R-Wyo.) and was co-sponsored by Representative Rob Bishop (R-Utah) so the majority of the questions put to me from the Republican side were focused on the fact that though the park could choose to open some of these rivers and manage paddling as they do other backcountry uses, they have just chosen not to. They refuse even to have a conversation about river running while it’s clear that wilderness rivers throughout the West, some managed tightly like the Selway and some not managed at all like the Clarks Fork, can be enjoyed without a significant impact to the riparian environment.

Any idea on the likelihood that boating will be allowed and under what scenarios?
We definitely have their attention but we have a long way to go. It seems that some land managers would prefer that people enjoy the national parks from their cars or from paved turnouts or boardwalks. At the same time there’s a push from the highest levels of government to get our overweight citizenry out of their cars and involved in fitness activities. People need to realize that river running is a traditional way of traveling through the side and backcountry and that paddling in Yellowstone and GTNP is a good thing. Regardless of what some of the detractors might think, Congress is a higher power and the bill has a decent chance of making it through the House. The exact language is still being tweaked, but it is non-partisan and maybe we can get it passed. But we will need a lot of help in the Senate. We need to get the word out that paddlers are a strong part of the conservation community and that we are great stewards of the resource. I personally would like to see a pilot program where a few rivers in Grand Teton and Yellowstone are opened for a set period of time and we see how it goes.

Any idea on the runs that would be opened and what they are like?
We’ve made it clear that the paddling community is not asking for every river to be open all the time. There is world-class whitewater in Yellowstone and amazing floating in Grand Teton that is also closed. The Black Canyon of the Yellowstone is an amazing run with 27 miles of Class III-V. A great access trail already exists and the takeout is beyond the park boundary. A strong Class IV paddler could do this run with a few easy portages and most of the portaging and or scouting is done below the high water mark on solid rock. Much of the run is also trail-side, and it’s good from when the ice melts in late April into October. Other great whitewater runs that would be of minimal impact to allow access to are the Lewis River Canyon—taking out on the Snake outside of the park—and roadside sections on the Lamar and Gardiner rivers. Beyond whitewater there are amazing floats on the Buffalo Fork in Grand Teton and the Upper Yellowstone above Yellowstone Lake. All this doesn’t even consider the incredibly backcountry floating that can be accessed in a low impact way via trail with packrafts.

Any idea why the park service has opposed boating for so long?
The ban originated in response to over fishing. At the time the amazing recreational potential and value of paddling on these rivers just wasn’t considered.

Who are some of the main opponents of it?
Several organizations have traditionally been against opening the rivers of Yellowstone and Grand Teton to paddling and have always expressed some concern about it. They also don’t like the idea of a use being legislated by Congress that could set a precedent that other user groups could use to force access into the parks. There is also the view that the parks are overburdened and underfunded, and that paddling will further tax their resources.

But there are flaws with these arguments. Paddling is allowed in almost every National Park where the opportunity exists with the exceptions of Yellowstone and Yosemite. Paddling is a low-impact activity, and rivers were the original trails used to explore and travel through the West. Paddling was previously allowed, but was only banned to protect the fishery. It would be easy to allow paddling and maintain a ban on float fishing. As for the legislation argument, I don’t think this is the best course of action either, but we’ve been totally stonewalled so far. Whenever paddling has been brought up during the 20 years that I’ve been involved, park service folks just point to the ban and say their hands are tied. The river running community has already stressed that the language of this bill must be very specific to the anomalies of this situation and not misconstrued as a precedent-setting measure to force unsuitable uses in the parks.

Finally, regarding the issue of the parks being overused and underfunded, much of this is true and I respect that park managers have a challenging job. However, there are permit systems that can generate revenue. There are fine examples of public/non-profit collaborations that could help fund things like a seasonal river ranger and help mitigate the small impacts that paddling may have. There is no new infrastructure involved, and a pilot program allowing paddling would cost very little.

All this brings up the larger philosophical issue: Are the parks just there to be enjoyed by car or boardwalk? This was certainly not the intent of the founders. There is real concern in our country that so many of our citizens and particularly young people are getting disconnected from the natural world. If the future brings a world where the next generation doesn’t really care about nature and value healthy, wild rivers, who will be left to help protect these places? People need to embrace the fact that river running is a healthy, low impact and exciting way to experience nature. I’ve coached enough kids over the years to know that whitewater is an amazing hook that gets kids excited enough about wild rivers that they will become the next generation of river stewards and conservationists.

Read other stories about paddling in the National Parks
Disappointment at the Grand Canyon
Paddlers Fined for Running Grand Canyon During Shutdown
Success for Grand Canyon Speed-Runners

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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