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A Deeper Dive Into Yellowstone

Posted: 02/14/2014
By: Kevin Colburn

Earlier this week we posted a quick article informing our community that American Whitewater would not pursue the Senate version of the River Paddling Protection Act, ending our exploration of a legislative solution to the management of paddling in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.  We’ve obviously gotten some questions about this decision and would like to offer a more robust explanation. 

How We Engaged in Park Management

As an organization we support science-based management decisions that are generated through an open public process, and are consistent with law and policy.  This is true whether the decision is about building a dam, protecting a river, or limiting a recreational use.  In most cases periodic reviews like dam relicensing or forest planning provide the forum for us to advocate for conservation and sustainable recreation.  In Yellowstone and Grand Teton, we have long sought such a forum to have river paddling considered. 

In 2013 the Parks released a draft river management plan for 5 rivers and excluded paddling from consideration, claiming in part that 60 year old federal paddling bans tied their hands.  These bans were enacted in the 50’s as a result of overfishing with Yellowstone and have created a status quo with park management.  We filed comments challenging this decision, and seeking the hard look that is universally expected in all natural resource decisions.  We reached out to many of the organizations that are involved in the management of these parks and found that many understood and did not object to our request for an analysis.  The Park Service however, stated that they would not change course.   

Legislative Opportunity Arises

American Whitewater did not request the River Paddling Protection Act or initiate a legislative effort, however Wyoming paddlers voiced their frustration to their one Congressional representative which promted the bill.  We were first contacted by Congresswoman Lummis’s office about the bill shortly before its introduction.  We voiced concerns about potential controversy, offered feedback on draft language that did not result in changes, and supported introduction of the bill to create a forum for highlighting and considering the issue.

Upon introduction we reached out to other organizations and individuals that share an interest in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and heard concerns about the bill language, but limited concerns with the intent.  We reached out to Yellowstone National Park to discuss the legislation and did not receive a response.  

Like others, we were concerned that the legislation as originally drafted would have set a bad precedent with National Wildlife Refuge System’s management, and possibly limit the Park Service’s discretion to manage paddling just like all other uses.  There was a general consensus about how the bill would need to be improved to garner broad support, and accordingly we submitted testimony on the bill that sought changes solely requiring a study and a modern management decision based on that study.

A new version of the bill was drafted based on the testimonies and bipartisan feedback. The new version granted the NPS three years to study the issue and replace the 60-year old rules, and did not alter their management discretion.  The National Wildlife Refuge language was struck and replaced with a simple consultation requirement.  There was limited opposition to the new bill, with most public lands stakeholders taking a neutral stance.  The new version of the bill quickly passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee by unanimous consent.   

The paddling bill was promptly packaged with a suite a public lands bills that were the subject of significant opposition within the conservation community and Congress.  As part of the package the bill drew significant negative attention including an Administrative Statement of Policy opposing the bill. This package moved to the floor of the house where it was hotly debated and passed on a near party line vote.  

The Debate Shifts, Prompts Return To Our Original Efforts

Continuing our outreach, it became evident that the bill would have a challenging path in the Senate and with the Administration.  While many organizations remained neutral, the roster of organizations that opposed the bill was growing, and the anti-paddling rhetoric in the media, in DC, and among the conservation community was becoming increasingly toxic and counter-productive. 

We recognized this situation as one that was rapidly headed for a long, heated, damaging, and distracting fight.  The legislative effort we hoped would lead to a meaningful debate and science-based management was being taken in the wrong direction. The resources required to fully engage in a struggle of this scale and nature would consume significant organizational resources and prevent us from engaging in countless other high-priority projects. Our capacity to continue our original strategy on the river management plan in these parks, and other high priority regional and national projects would be threatened. 

So we made the hard call not to pursue the Senate version of the River Paddling Protection Act.  There is certainly support out there for managing this issue like all others – with science and an open process.  We are glad that we explored the legislative solution to Yellowstone and Grand Teton’s refusal to manage their rivers based on science, policy, and a public process.  It raised the abuse of discretion behind the Parks’ draft river management plans to a high level of scrutiny, and continues to do so.  The National Park Service has yet to release their final river management plan for the Snake River, Lewis River, Gros Ventre River, Buffalo Fork, and Pacific Creek.  They could still do the right thing and take a hard look at paddling on these rivers based on places, times, and numbers that are environmentally sustainable and supported by sound science.

Associated Projects

Yellowstone and Grand Teton

AW has advocated for opportunities to experience the incredible rivers of Yellowstone National and Grand Teton National Parks through paddling.

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  • River Paddling Protection Act Testimony

    American Whitewater's initial testimony on HR 3492, the River Paddling Protection Act, which aims to replace old management rules on paddling in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

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