Lummis retools controversial bill to expand paddling at Wyo. gems

By Phil Taylor | 02/05/2015 06:55 AM EST

Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), vice chairwoman of the Natural Resources Committee, plans to reintroduce a bill to increase paddling access at Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, a proposal that has dug rifts within the conservation community.

Lummis is working with stakeholders to reintroduce H.R. 3492, the "River Paddling Protection Act," but has no timeline for unveiling the bill, according to her spokesman. The measure passed the House a year ago as part of a larger public lands package, H.R. 2954, that was never considered in the Senate.

It was originally backed by American Whitewater, a nonprofit, North Carolina-based group that advocates for river conservation and human-powered boating, but it was opposed by the National Park Service, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and other conservation groups.

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As passed by the House, the bill would have overturned regulations banning paddling on certain streams and rivers in Yellowstone and Grand Teton that were put in place in the 1950s and ’60s to relieve post-war fishing pressure. It would have given the National Park Service three years to decide which of those streams should be open to "hand-propelled vessels," presumably kayaking, canoeing and pack rafting but possibly also tubing.

Lummis said the Park Service had refused to consider opening new waters to paddlers — using the decades-old regulations as cover — and that the bill was meant to give the paddling community "a seat at the table."

But the Park Service strongly opposed the bill as introduced, saying it would set a troubling precedent and tie the hands of park managers. It said there are "abundant opportunities" for paddling or floating in Teton except for in the remote, mountainous high country, and that, of the 168 lakes within Yellowstone, only five are closed to boating. The White House also opposed the measure as it hit the House floor.

Some conservationists opposed it, too, saying more than 300 miles, or 86 percent, of streams in and around Grand Teton are already open to paddling, and that new boating access could introduce invasive weeds or aquatic species.

So last fall, Lummis asked the Park Service for help drafting a new bill.

"The service has cited current regulations prohibiting paddling in the parks as reasoning to not study river and stream access," Lummis wrote in a Sept. 17, 2014, letter to NPS’s legislative staff obtained by E&E Daily through a Freedom of Information Act request. "I appreciate any suggested changes the National Park Service has to ensure the study of paddling is manageable."

The Interior Department obliged, sending an Oct. 30, 2014, reply with legislative text that would require NPS to study the effects of allowing greater boating access in the parks but excluding from the study waters already open to boats as well as high-mountain streams in western Grand Teton. The suggested bill would let NPS decide if existing regulations should be overturned. It would set no deadlines, and it would stipulate that such studies would not explore commercial boating.

It is not clear what, if any, provisions of the Interior suggestions Lummis will adopt in her new bill.

But it is clear that Lummis’ bill last Congress sparked major debate within the conservation community in northwest Wyoming over the proper balance of recreation in iconic parks famous for their backcountry solitude, moose, grizzlies and wolves.

All of Yellowstone’s rivers and streams are currently closed to paddling except on the channel between Lewis Lake and Shoshone Lake, and some park advocates would like to keep it that way.

NPCA last year said Lummis’ original bill would overturn important backcountry protections for grizzly bears and "fails to consider the recreational and natural values provided … to visitors who seek solitude and wild nature."

Interior’s recommended changes are an improvement to the bill, said Kristen Brengel, senior director of legislative and government relations for NPCA. But even after narrowing its scope, studying thousands of miles of streams for paddling would still be expensive, she said. Yellowstone over the past decade has spent millions of dollars to establish a new winter plan for snowmobile use, she noted.

The Congressional Budget Office said last year’s bill would have cost the Park Service $4 million in environmental and feasibility studies and management costs.

"It’s going to continue to be a controversial debate," Brengel said. "A small cadre in Jackson [Wyo.] is pushing for this. The thing that worries me about this is favoring one group over another."

American Whitewater, which testified in favor of the bill in November 2013, citing major demand among paddlers to float Yellowstone’s streams, a year ago yanked its support for the bill after it passed the House as part of a controversial public lands package. It had been sponsored in the Senate by John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).

"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," the group said then.

But American Whitewater insists paddling is a compatible use in Yellowstone and is still angling for greater access to the 2.2-million-acre park, said Kevin Colburn, the group’s national stewardship director.

"We remain extremely disappointed in the Park Service for refusing to consider allowing citizens to enjoy the handful of newly designated Wild and Scenic Rivers in Yellowstone and Grand Teton via carefully managed canoeing and kayaking," he said.

"They should have done so through the management planning process for those rivers yet evaded that obligation," Colburn said. "It was a discarded opportunity to explore the value and sustainability of paddling in the Parks through an open, public, and data-rich process."

He said the group is not currently pursuing access at Yellowstone, but if legislation is introduced, it will consider it.

The original bill, American Whitewater noted, retained the Park Service’s management discretion, saw minimal opposition from public lands stakeholders and had passed the House Natural Resources Committee by unanimous consent.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which opposed the bill last Congress, said it is waiting to see Lummis’ new bill before taking a position. But it said legislating new uses at Yellowstone or Grand Teton or mandating costly studies would be a bad idea.

"For these and other reasons, we have opposed legislation in the past that would legislatively mandate paddling into more areas of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks," said Scott Christensen, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s conservation director. "Each new use or activity proposed inside Yellowstone should be carefully analyzed and weighed by biologists and National Park Service managers tasked with conserving this special place. Deference should always be given to protecting fragile park resources."

Lummis is in a prime position to pass the legislation this Congress, given her leadership role on Natural Resources and the GOP’s control of the Senate.

But gaining allies in the environmental community may be a challenge even for a scaled-back bill, given Lummis’ positions on endangered species protections, logging, energy development and conservation spending — positions that have distanced her from national park advocates.

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