Bill would expand paddling in parks

Oct 8, 2015 The Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. -- The U.S. House Natural Resources Committee voted Thursday to lift long-standing restrictions and allow kayaks, rafts and other "hand-propelled" vessels to be used on hundreds of miles of rivers and streams in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

The committee passed the measure from Wyoming Republican U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis on a vote of 23 to 15, sending the bill to the full House.

Conservation and angling groups opposed the changes. They said existing restrictions preserve the solitude and wildness of the parks' waterways, while still allowing boats on many lakes and some rivers.

In response to those concerns, committee members approved an amendment that Lummis says would reduce the number of miles of streams and rivers that would have to be analyzed for future use by paddlers.

"This would reduce by over 90 percent the amount of analysis and the river miles that would be subject to being analyzed for allowing kayaking in the park," Lummis said.

But the National Parks Conservation Association said park officials still would have to analyze some 6,500 miles of waterways.

"We hope that Congress will not move this problematic legislation forward," said Stephanie Adams, Yellowstone program manager for the conservation group. She warned of "far-reaching, negative impacts" on parks that are "two of our country's crown jewels."

Thousands of paddlers annually already visit areas in Yellowstone and Grand Teton where non-motorized vessels are not banned, officials said. That includes 60,000 paddlers each year using the Snake River through Grand Teton, and more than 2,000 permits a year for non-motorized boating in Yellowstone, according to prior testimony from U.S. Interior Department officials.

Lummis' amendment would exclude the use of inner-tubes and other unconventional watercraft. The bill also calls for federal officials to coordinate the recreational use of hand-propelled vessels on the Gros Ventre River within the National Elk Refuge.

An earlier attempt by Lummis to lift restrictions on watercraft in the two parks was approved last year by the full House but not the Senate.

National Park Service officials said at the time that the bill would prevent park administrators from using their professional judgment to decide where vessels should be allowed.

Park officials could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday.