A plan without a paddle: Park, Forest plan for Snake River use doesn’t include paddlers.
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Normally, it is the proposed changes of a management plan that draw the comments and outrage. However, the new river management plans for the Snake River and its headwater tributaries released by Bridger-Teton National Forest and the National Park Service propose few changes. And that is what has some people, paddlers in particular, upset.
Time is running out for the public to weigh in on plans released by the Bridger-Teton National Forest and the National Park Service that will comply with the Snake River Headwaters’ Wild and Scenic designation. The national designation is meant to protect the river’s values and existing uses, while prohibiting future projects that would harm the ecosystem. Both agencies have created separate plans. People have until June 30 to comment.
The Wild and Scenic designation of the Snake River Headwaters protects 13 rivers and about 415 river miles, said Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director for American Rivers. Of those, about 100 miles are in Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Park, where paddling is mostly banned on rivers.
American Rivers, which worked closely with the agencies on the plan, encouraged the Park Service to evaluate paddling and at least justify not including it with scientific data, Bosse said. The Park Service said evaluating paddling was outside the scope of the plan and that the designation was meant to add additional protections, not undo existing protections.
“While legally, they may have a point they don’t have to address it, they [could have] evaluated paddling,” he said. “We just don’t want to see this river management plan end up in litigation.”
The paddling community played a big role in the campaign to get the Wild and Scenic designation. “Because they played such a role in the Wild and Scenic campaign, we thought it important their voices be heard and their concerns acted upon,” Bosse said.
The new plan seemed the perfect time to ramp up discussion about paddling in the parks.
Changing park policy to allow boating in certain areas of the park where it’s currently banned is beyond the scope of the plan, said Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, Grand Teton National Park spokeswoman. Areas closed to boating have been closed under longstanding regulations in place since the 1940s and 1950s, she said.
Anzelmo-Sarles wasn’t sure what originally prompted the boating ban in those areas. The Wild and Scenic designation was based on existing permitted use and does not override existing more protective measures, she said.
To make a change to a longstanding regulation and allow a new type of use would require additional analysis and study. That would require a minimum of an intensive multi-year effort that would require staff and other park resources, Anzelmo-Sarles explained. It doesn’t mean Park Service officials think boating creates more impact than other uses, nor does it mean the Park Service won’t ever consider changing its policy and study paddling. This plan was just not the time for that, she said.
And already there are many boating opportunities in the park. More than 71 percent of the Snake River in Grand Teton is open to non-motorized boating, she said. There are a substantial number of lakes in the park.
“They definitely did not do their due diligence,” said Thomas Turiano, vice president of the American Packraft Association. The river management plan is the appropriate time to look at and study all uses of the river, he said.
While there are miles of water for boating, those who like to packraft – a relatively new sport that involves hiking with a small inflatable raft in a backpack and then inflating it at the water’s edge – want a backcountry experience, Turiano said.
The Park Service says there are all these miles of water; but many are not navigable, or they are in the front country and full of other boaters, Turiano argued. There are only five miles of available remote wilderness travel on park rivers. In Grand Teton it seems they just don’t want to do the analysis and study, he said.
Turiano says Yellowstone has a long history and culture of keeping people out of the backcountry. In Yellowstone, there are thousands of miles of river and the Snake River headwaters make up a small portion. It’s not just anti-boating, but seems to be about rangers wanting control, historically keeping people out of the backcountry to protect wildlife from poaching.
Boating was originally banned in Yellowstone to protect rivers from being overfished in the 1950s. Since then, fishing is again allowed on the rivers, but boating is not. Species endangered at the time of the boating ban have since recovered, Turiano said. Plus, the National Environmental Protection Agency requires supplemental environmental analysis whenever there is a significant new circumstance to a continuing federal agency action, he said.
A group of packrafters hikes toward a tributary in the upper reaches of the Gros Ventre River with packrafts, paddles and PFDs in their backpacks. The lower section of the Gros Ventre River from the boundary of Grand Teton National Park to Kelly is one corridor paddlers would like considered in the Snake River Headwaters Comprehensive River Management Plan and Environmental Assessment. It is currently closed to boating.
“Packrafting is a completely new circumstance,” Turiano noted.
Yellowstone National Park spokesman Al Nash said he didn’t know when or why boating was first banned in Yellowstone, but it had been that way for years and the Park Service chose not to look at it with this plan. If the park were to propose a change to allow boating, it would have to perform an internal evaluation to determine the appropriate level of review under NEPA, he said.
The Park also would need to go through the federal rulemaking process. The number of people who violate the boat ban in the park varies year to year, he said. But they are usually treated as mandatory court appearances. Boats are seized as evidence and held until the case is adjudicated. If convicted of the class B misdemeanor, the judge can levy a fine up to $5,000, jail time up to six months, a five-year ban from entering the park and possible forfeiture of equipment, Nash said.
Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks are exceptions among Wild and Scenic Rivers, said Kevin Colburn, National Stewardship Director with American Whitewater Association.
Wild and Scenic designation puts in place protection for water quality and wildlife.
“Those are going to protect the river regardless if paddling happens or not,” Colburn explained.
Colburn said his organization disagreed with the park’s stance that it doesn’t have to consider additional use on the river with the new plan. It can’t exclude an alternative just because it includes something different, he said.
“It’s very clear they are not following the law,” he said.
Colburn said his group had not discussed legal action and are still hopeful they can work with the Park Service. In Yellowstone National Park, he said, it seems like boating was excluded because it went against park culture and they just don’t want to allow it.
American Whitewater Association advocates river protections and if there was proof boating adversely impacted a particular river, the group would support a ban.
“We will always put the river first,” Colburn said. “We are a conservation group. We are all about sustainable recreation.”
For Colburn, paddling is a way to truly experience and appreciate rivers, especially those protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
“The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is all about protecting and enjoying the best rivers in the States,” he said. “Paddling is an absolutely magical way to connect with nature and the river. It’s an amazing way for Americans to experience nature and celebrate our wild and scenic rivers.”
Other than the lack of addressing paddling, Colburn said he was happy with the plan, which will protect the rivers. “The standards are really strict and pretty good, so I’m heartened.”
Colburn said last week his focus had been on the Park Service plan and he hadn’t spent much time reviewing the Forest Service’s plan.
Very little is proposed to change in the plan, said Mary Cernicek, Bridger-Teton National Forest spokeswoman. The forest has received few comments or questions, perhaps because boating is already allowed on river stretches that run on forest land.
Bosse said American Rivers was surprised and disappointed the Forest Service didn’t tackle motorized boating. The stretch from West Table to Sheep Gulch is closed to motorized boating by Wyoming Game and Fish Department, but that closure could be lifted anytime. It also doesn’t protect the rest of the river. At the very least he wants the Forest Service to create thresholds for future use.
About five boats a year cross the Snake River in motor boats, usually hunters going to bear bait sites, Cernicek said.
“Banning existing use is not something the Bridger-Teton does unless there is a documented problem that the river is being degraded in some way,” she said.
If motorized use becomes a problem, the Forest Service can address it in ways that include creating a special order, she said. The Wild and Scenic designation does not say motors are banned. The Forest Service has managed the Snake River and its headwaters as though it was a Wild and Scenic river since it became eligible for designation, she said.
“If we don’t address that now, with recreation trends as they are, and motorized recreation increasing,” Bosse said, “it could explode on the Snake River and we want to prevent that from happening.”
Bosse also said he wished the plan included more discussion about managing rivers across private lands. He also wants flood plains removed from areas of potential gravel mining.
There also are positives to the plans.
Bosse said he liked the increased interpretation and education proposed by the Park Service to teach people about the Snake River, its headwaters and what a Wild and Scenic designation means for protection. The Forest Service also attempts to protect the river from energy development by designating no surface occupancy in the area.
“I think the agencies have produced some really good plans,” Bosse said. “But they could use some modifications to become even better.”
Commenting on both the National Park Service’s plan and the Forest Service’s plan ends June 30.
To view the plans search for “Snake River management plans.”