One Stroke Forward, Two Strokes Back: Yellowstone Paddling Bill Passes House, But AW Withdraws Support

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In late January, paddlers came one step closer to being able to legally paddle in Yellowstone National Park as a new version of the River Paddling Protection Act (HR 3492) bill was passed by the House of Representatives and its Natural Resources Committee, by unanimous vote. While the bill was amended to address concerns voiced by American Whitewater, the National Park Service and others — and was what AW called “a much stronger piece of legislation,” requiring the Park Service to look at paddling without limiting their management discretion or legislating an outcome – it still needs to pass the Senate, whose vote no one is sure when will come.

“To be honest I have no idea whatsoever when that might occur,” says AW’s Kevin Colburn. “I wish I did.”

And in the most recently breaking news, American Whitewater announced that it has decided “not to advocate for a 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.”

Congressional leaders, lead by bill sponsor Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), passed a revised version of the bill with bi-partisan support in the House Natural Resources Committee in late January. It then passed the House of Representatives as part of a highly controversial package of public lands bills, AW’s report says.

“Since that time it’s become apparent that there is insufficient support from the National Park Service and our conservation partners to justify our active involvement with moving forward with the legislative process,” says Colburn. “Advocating for this legislation in the Senate with insufficient support would exhaust resources better spent on promising conservation projects, would damage valued relationships, and would be unlikely to produce a favorable outcome. We greatly appreciate the many people’s time and effort involved with this initiative, and value the conversations that have occurred around this important issue as a result of the legislation.”

The new version of the bill gives the National Park Service three years to come up with new management for paddling, after which the 60 year old outdated paddling bans will expire. It also ensures that the Park Service has normal discretion to manage paddling like other activities. The bill now heads to the U.S. Senate, says sponsor Lummis, who is sponsoring the bill with Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.

With or without AW’s involvement, if approved the bill would remove current, long-standing prohibitions on paddling sports and allow people to negotiate with park superintendents and elk refuge officials on specific times, sections of rivers and frequency of paddling. Those opposed to the bill include the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees the parks, as well as he National Parks Conservation Association, which has raised concerns that it will draw more people into remote sections of the park.

And several entities, as well as concerned paddlers, are still voicing their support, including Aaron Pruzan of the nearby Rendezvous River Sports and Jackson Hole Kayak School, who went to Washington, D.C., to testify on its behalf. Pruzan is currently soliciting a democratic co-sponsor from the region “to help end this antiquated ban.”

“It’s widely known how amazing the rivers are in the parks,” he says. “We’re not advocating that all of them be opened, but many are appropriate for paddling. Ending the ban will not automatically open boating — it will have the Park Service do the study that they were already supposed to do so they can determine when and where boating is appropriate.”

After releasing its announcement, AW posted the following explaining its decision in more detail:

“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. 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 prompted 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.

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Staff Post
Staff Posthttps://paddlinglife.com
Paddlers writing about all things paddling.

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