Yellowstone National Park is pretty great. We saw tons of amazing animals, tons of geysers (which were much more impressive than the ones in Iceland we saw two years ago, honestly), great hiking, and we even got to go swimming. There is one problem though for a guy like me. I really like whitewater kayaking. I have been boating for 9 years and have been an instructor for 3 years. I’ve paddled rivers all the way up to class V all around the country. Kayaking is such a part of my life that I brought three different kayaks with me on this RV trip. The problem with Yellowstone National Park is the Yellowstone Boating Ban.
Basically in the 1950’s, the park was facing an over-fishing problem, and one of the solutions that was presented was to prohibit boating on almost all of the the rivers in order to limit fishing of native fish species. At the time not many people really wanted to canoe down class II, let alone attempt the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone so no one put up much of a fuss.
The problem is that the Yellowstone boating ban has continued to this day when every other national park in the country allows it to some extent on whitewater rivers. This includes the Merced River in Yosemite and Great Falls in Virginia. Currently boating is only allowed inside Yellowstone on a couple lakes and on one flat water section of the Lewis River between two of those lakes.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a few perfectly reasonable reasons for restrictions on whitewater boating. However, most of the negative impacts can be managed effectively and there are many examples of effective management around the country.
- Boaters can make difficult whitewater sections in popular areas of the park seem safer than they are, leading to other visitors getting closer than they should to the river or attempting to run dangerous rapids in unsafe craft (like single chamber inner tubes). Great Falls in Virginia has this problem all the time and asks boaters to go early in the morning or late at night to minimize other visitors getting any ideas. Restrictions on boating through the most popular sections of the park like the Firehole River near most of the geyser basins and the Lamar River through the Lamar valley (while sad) would be understandable.
- Boaters can cause bank erosion at put-ins and take-outs. Despite our best efforts, we will still create “trails” down to river level where we put our boats in the water and where we take out. In the most popular areas, construction is often necessary to add stairs down to river level or add “put in eddies” where it is safe to enter the river. This can be managed through the National Park policy of “concentrated impact.” A great example of concentrated impact are park loop roads. Most national parks have one or two roads where 90% of visitors see the park. The rest of the park area is remote and relatively difficult to access compared to by car. The same policy could be used with regard to river sections. Build up some of the most popular areas and leave the rest alone and more difficult to access. Boaters also don’t have any more impact than fishermen in this respect and fishing is allowed on almost all rivers in the park.
- Boaters can get themselves into trouble. People do die in this sport. They also get injured, or lose/damage gear and need evacuation. This is usually managed similarly to backcountry camping/hiking permits. Backcountry campers and hikers can sometimes need rescue and a permit system allows park managers to know where people are and where they are supposed to be. Issuing permits for boating would work exactly the same way. Park managers would know where people were and where they should be headed for rescue efforts. There is already a permit process in place for canoeists who do backcountry canoe trips on the lakes, a river permit process would work the same way.
- Boaters can influence wildlife. There are some habitats for endangered species which should be protected from humans. For instance, some species of duck only nest in a handful of places inside Yellowstone and get skittish around humans and won’t mate when disturbed. These restrictions for wildlife should definitely apply to some areas of the park, but certainly not all of the thousands of miles of rivers in the parks.
- Boaters (as well as fishermen) can carry invasive species on their boats or on their gear. When boaters (or fishermen) travel with water in their boats or on their gear, they can inadvertently transport different non-native species of bacteria, mussels, snails, fungus, or even fish to new rivers. Many states have Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) inspection checkpoints to be sure that boaters have drained all water from their boats and thoroughly dried all of their gear. These efforts and educational signs at put-ins and takeouts are often paid for with AIS stickers for boats (like in Wyoming and Idaho) or through boating permits and fishing licenses. Yellowstone already has to deal with this issue for the canoes which come to boat on the lakes and with fishermen and their waders.
So while there are legitimate reasons to restrict boating in some places inside of Yellowstone, there is no reason for a blanket ban across the board.
For a decent summary of the issues and a possible legislative solution currently in front of congress, check out Canoe and Kayak Magazine’s article.
The map below shows a whole bunch of rivers within Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park that could be paddled but currently aren’t allowed. If current legislation before congress passes, the Park Superintendent would need to assess whether and how to allow boating on these sections.
Open this map full screen.
What can you do? If you’re a whitewater boater, join American Whitewater. They are the paddling lobbying group and have been fighting this ban for over 20 years. The American Packrafting Association has also been fighting the ban for as long as they have been an organization. You can also call your representatives and voice your support for the Yellowstone and Grand Teton Paddling Act HR 974. Shoot me and email or leave a comment below if you have any questions about the ban.