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Yellowstone Bill Passes the US House of Representatives

Posted: 02/08/2014
by Kevin Colburn

The River Paddling Protection Act, introduced by Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), passed the US House of Representatives on Thursday and now moves to the Senate for consideration.  The bill grants the National Park Service three years to replace 60 year-old paddling prohibitions in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks with modern science-based management.  Doing so would allow Americans to experience these iconic landscapes through non-commercial paddling in a low impact, sustainable, and carefully managed manner. 

The original version of the bill was the subject of a hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee late last year.  Concerns raised in the hearing and testimony submitted by American Whitewater, the National Park Service, and others led to a complete re-write of the bill.  The new version of the bill gave the NPS sufficient time to conduct a solid analysis, explicitly does not limit their management discretion, and does not affect the National Elk Refuge’s management mandate.  These positive bi-partisan changes were supported by the paddling community and eased concerns about the bill.

Just days ago, the River Paddling Protection Act was bundled with a suite of other public lands bills.  Several of these bills are highly controversial, including at least one bill that American Whitewater is on record opposing.  Debate was heated on the House floor regarding several bills in the package, but the River Paddling Protection Act did not draw criticism from either party.  Like one other bill in the package, the River Paddling Protection Act is relatively non-controversial. With this said, letters to the editor and comments are showing up in regional newspapers on both sides of this issue and we are actively considering the issues brought forward by opponents of the bill.

The River Paddling Protection Act requires a study and updated paddling rules based on that study, without limiting what those rules may be.  It would replace management based on personal preferences with management based on the science, policies, and practices that ensure the responsible management of all other parks.  We feel that the bill is in the public interest, and will continue discussing it with our many partners. 

Below is a list of Q&A’s that we will continue to share with every article on this issue.

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Questions and Answers About The River Paddling Protection Act (HR 3492)

Q: What value does HR 3492 have?

A: Paddling is an ancient, healthy, widely-supported and low-impact way for Americans to connect with nature and our public lands.  Allowing people to experience Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks though paddling rivers builds support for land and water conservation, and federal designations across the country.  It also offers visitors the chance to directly experience these special rivers and landscapes in an awe-inspiring and sustainable manner.  Banning paddling in Yellowstone would be akin to banning climbing in Yosemite National Park or hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park - it has profound and unnecessary impacts on people that live nearby and visitors from afar.  Lifting this ban will enrich many lives and support the connection between outdoor enthusiasts and support for wild protected places.  

Q: Would HR 3492 lead to tubing on park rivers?

A: No.  It is standard practice for the NPS and other river managers to limit floating use by requiring specific equipment like 1) life jackets, 2) helmets, 3) craft specifically designed for river travel including kayaks, canoes, and qualifying inflatables.  

Q: Would HR 3492 require that all rivers be open to unlimited paddling all the time? 

A: No.  HR 3492 requires that rivers be open to paddling "as determined by the director of the NPS," which ensures the NPS has their normal range of discretion for limiting paddling.  With this authority the NPS can employ standard recreational management tools to ensure natural resources are protected.  Practically, in most cases paddlers could be managed in concert with other front and backcountry visitors without any need for special limits.  Where needed additional limits could be implemented.  In the most extreme case, there may be places where even low impact recreational activities are unacceptable during some or all of the year to protect sensitive wildlife or other park values.

Q: Would HR 3492 require that rivers be opened to paddling without an analysis?

A: No.  The bill grants the NPS three years to consider the issue and develop some management rules prior to lifting the 60+ year old regulations.  

Q: Is paddling a new activity in these Parks?

A: No. Paddling has occured in Yellowstone National Park for many years.  For example, the famous conservationist Olaus Murie canoed the upper Yellowstone River with his sons prior to the ban.  

Q: Can Yellowstone and Grand Teton afford to analyze and manage paddling?

A: Yes.  All other National Parks, National Forests, and BLM units that have paddling resources allow and manage paddling within their budgets, and Yellowstone and Grand Teton can too.  It is part of their job as federal land managers.    

Q: Is HR 3492 aimed at benefiting a small group of extreme sports participants?

A: No.  The rivers of Yellowstone and Grand Teton offer everything from scenic family-friendly canoeing, to multi-day Class II-III packrafting trips, to world-class whitewater opportunities for all ability levels.  Records of arrests made in Yellowstone show at least three father and son canoe trips ending with federal charges.  HR 3492 will help a new generation of Americans of broad ability levels and interests get out of their cars and connect with a very special landscape and suite of rivers.  

Q: Why was paddling banned in the first place?

A: Paddling was banned on the first day of fishing season in 1950 to prevent the overfishing that was occuring in Yellowstone in the post-war era.  Grand Teton followed suit several years later for unknown reasons.   

Q: Would paddling require new infrastructure like parking lots, trails, and fencing?

A: No.  Paddlers will generally use existing infrastructure.  If paddling certain rivers would benefit from limited infrastructure enhancements then the NPS can consider it just as they would consider enhancements for other activities.  

Q: Why is HR 3492 necessary?

A: The NPS has cited the 60+ year old federal-level regulations that ban paddling as limiting their ability to even consider allowing paddling during normal park management planning processes.  With this said, the NPS could analyze and allow paddling but refuses to do so. HR 3492 would require them to take this hard look and initiate modern river management in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.     

Q: How do other parks manage paddling?

A: Paddling is allowed across the National Park System.  Most often visitors to front and backcountry are managed with the same permits, limits and access areas whether they are hiking or paddling.  On the rare high-demand rivers limited entry permits may be required that are specific for paddling. 

Q: Is it true that this bill effects 7,500 miles of streams as some have claimed?

A: No.  There may be as many as 750 miles of streams that are floatable in these parks, but most of these are small streams that would likely have low demand and short seasons of use.  The stream miles that would require any kind of unique management is a small fraction of the total miles.  

Q: Can’t paddlers just work this out with the NPS?

A: In meetings with the NPS at the park, regional, and national level over the last 2 years, the NPS made it clear paddling would not be reconsidered.   We are open and hopeful that this will be possible in the future.