Thursday, June 20, 2013

Snake River Headwaters

Photo courtesy of the American Packrafting Association

The following opinion piece appeared in the June 19th weekly edition of the Jackson Hole News & Guide. For more information on how to comment in support of paddling in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks click here.

Don't let our parks dry dock paddlers

In a recent article in the News&Guide about paddlers’ efforts to get Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks to re-examine their bans on paddling, Park officials defended the ban saying paddling has an impact on “water quality, the condition of the river, on wildlife habitat and wildlife movements.” Such claims must be supported in an unbiased study.

The American Packrafting Association’s and American Whitewater’s main contention is that the national parks have no scientific research to support their ban, and no plans to carry out any studies going forward. Analyses of recreational uses within a river corridor are mandated by the Wild and Scenic designation bestowed on the Snake River Headwaters in 2009.

However, in the current draft of Snake River Headwaters Comprehensive River Management Plan and Environmental Assessment (comment period on the plan is open until June 30), our local national parks dismiss paddling outright under the heading “Alternative Considered but Dismissed from Detailed Evaluation.” It’s unfortunate that an important recreational activity and economic driver in our area has been completely sidelined.

When compared to other uses allowed in the national parks – RV camping, power boating, snowmobiling and elk hunting, to say nothing of the commercial airport or untold number of artillery rounds on Sylvan Pass (see the July 12 News&Guide) – making a case that paddling causes unacceptable impacts is frankly absurd.

Paddling, by its very definition and nature, has minimal impact to the environment. Paddlers can use existing river access points and do not need boat ramps or additional infrastructure. In particular, packrafts are perfect for accessing many of these rivers. Packrafts are lightweight, compact boats that can be carried in backpacks.

With sound camping and travel practices, we believe that paddlers have no more impact than other uses of the river corridors such as angling and hiking. Paddlers follow the same Leave No Trace principles adopted by the backpacking community. Furthermore, both American Whitewater and the American Packrafting Association have developed and promote codes of conduct for both safety and environmental ethics.

While few would argue that catch and release angling is causing a major detriment the environment, the fact of the matter is that a double-standard exists in our local national parks. Anglers are allowed to trample riverbanks, wade through rivers, and yank live animals out the water, but paddling is banned. 
Snowbikers are caught in this double standard’s winter equivalent. Fossil fuel-powered snowmobiles are given the thumbs up to roar through Yellowstone all winter long, but human-powered snowbikers are banned from those exact same corridors (and all other areas of the Park as well).

This begs the question: What drives decision making in our national parks? An activity shouldn’t be shut out just because its novel. Rather it should be examined for what it is and the impacts it causes, and science should drive that decision making.

Yellowstone and Grand Teton are home to some of the best paddling in the world. It’s a Mecca for whitewater river runs and flat water floats alike, among them the Lewis River, the upper Snake River, the lower reaches of Pacific Creek and Buffalo Fork, and the lower Gros Ventre River from the Park boundary to Kelly.

The permanent protection of these magnificent rivers is something we whole heartily support. Many in the paddling community worked hard for the passage of the Craig Thomas Snake River Headwaters Legacy Act out of which the Snake River Headwaters received a Wild and Scenic designation. Efforts by paddlers included key fundraising, meetings with landowners, educating the public, and working with members of Congress and their staff.

We understand that the uses allowed on a designated river should be consistent with the values that caused it to be designated. However, if no studies have been done on the effects of paddling, how can the conclusion be made that paddling is inconsistent with those values? Paddling is recognized as a low-impact activity and allowed on almost all Wild and Scenic designated rivers throughout the country.

The full 441-page Snake River Headwaters Comprehensive River Management Plan and Environmental Assessment is available at Boating is addressed on page 58 of the document (or page 70 if you’re viewing it in PDF format). A place to submit public comments on this plan is also available on the National Park Service website. The comment period closes June 30.
With science-based inquiry and thoughtful management, paddling can take its place alongside the many other appropriate uses of our national parks. Efforts to accommodate paddling on rivers in reasonable ways have already been implemented in other iconic national parks, such as the Grand Canyon, Olympic, Glacier, and more. Why can’t serious consideration of paddling take place in Yellowstone and Grand Teton?

Aaron Pruzan, Rendezvous River Sports, owner
Amy Hatch, Jackson Hole Packraft, owner
Thomas Turiano, American Packrafting Association
Forrest McCarthy, American Packrafting Association

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