This originally ran as an Op-Ed in the Missoulian. I see the current debate about paddling in YNP as having to do with a lot more than just boating. It’s about Yellowstone’s repeated indifference to non-traditional forms of human-powered recreation, and more broadly about the future of national parks generally.
A lifetime ago Yellowstone National Park banned boating on almost all park waters to control overfishing. Sixty four years later, the debate over revisiting this issue can tell us much about changing attitudes towards wild places.
In 2009 the Snake River Headwaters Legacy Act, progeny of the late senator Craig Thomas, passed into law. Four hundred ten miles of river, 99 of it inside Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, are thereby protected. Unfortunately, National Park Service administrators erroneously stated that existing administrative rules banning paddling took precedence over legislative provisions demanding a full analysis of recreational uses and their impacts. No new consideration of paddling in Yellowstone or Grand Teton took place. If the NPS has any empirical data concerning potential impacts of paddling on these waterways, they have not discussed them in public.
This was both a misinterpretation of the law and a shirking of duty. In response, and only after a period of discussion, Wyoming Reps. Cynthia Lummis and John Barrasso introduced the River Paddling Protection Act. The act, which passed the house on Feb. 6 and is currently in a senate committee, requires the NPS to produce a paddling management plan within three years, opening waterways they deem fit to human-powered watercraft. The bill, all of 14 lines long, demands action, but does not specify any particular outcome, nor limit the scope of NPS authority.
Quite a bit of controversy has followed. Little attention has been paid to the mundane, procedural substance, namely the protracted dereliction of duty practiced by the NPS. Rather, the past two months have seen a fierce ideological debate centered around the extent to which human-powered watercraft are an appropriate use of Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks.
Historical concerns weigh heavily on the discussion. The Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River has a robust legacy of kayakers poaching its whitewater, complete with stories of helicopter pursuits, confiscated boats, large fines and jail sentences. Future backcountry boaters of Yellowstone are portrayed as either modern day Joe Cosleys or thoughtless adrenaline junkies, who would see wild places as nothing more than particularly vast skate parks. The nay-sayers are in turn painted as fondue-eating armchair advocates whose most personal encounter with wild Yellowstone is through a spotting scope in the Soap Creek parking lot, being after all loath to muddy their Merrells.
None of these stereotypes are particularly accurate, or useful. A significant percentage of the Yellowstone rivers and streams suitable for paddling are gentle, and lend themselves to an idiom of travel far more contemplative than hiking. Yellowstone has been and will continue to be under considerable pressure from all manner of special interests, and conservatism on its behalf is laudable. Nonetheless, there is a long history in American public lands management of restricting how people may use the land, not why.
As of this writing, neither of our Montana senators has gone on the record in support of or opposition to the River Paddling Protection Act. If you’d like to paddle any of the 608 miles of creek or river in Yellowstone, which are navigable but currently closed to boating, now would be a good time to call your senators. If you’d rather eat your hat than see those waterways open to boating, now would be a good time to call your senator. If you’d prefer the National Park Service to follow the law, and be held accountable when they do not, now would be a good time to call your senator.
If you care about wild places, now would be a good time to call your senator.