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H.R. 3492: River Paddling Protection Act




Statement for the Record

U.S. Department of the Interior

before the

House Committee on Natural Resources

Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation

 Concerning H.R. 3492, to provide for the use of hand-propelled vessels in Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and the National Elk Refuge, and for other purposes. 

November 21, 2013

______________________________________________________________________________

 

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to provide the views of the Department of the Interior on H.R. 3492, a bill to provide for the use of hand-propelled vessels in Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and the National Elk Refuge.

 

Although the Department supports expanding outdoor recreation opportunities, we strongly oppose H.R. 3492 as introduced.  By overriding existing regulations and regulatory authority over hand-propelled boating, this legislation would set a troubling precedent by disrupting the carefully balanced management of recreational activities and resource protection that the National Park Service (NPS) provides at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) provides at the National Elk Refuge.  It would diminish the ability of federal managers to meet their responsibilities under the NPS Organic Act, the National Wildlife Refuge Administration Act, and other laws to provide for public enjoyment, ensure visitor safety, and address adverse effects to resources at those three units.

 

H.R. 3492 would nullify regulations that prohibit boating on rivers and streams in Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park with regard to hand-propelled vessels and prohibit the promulgation of similar regulations.  It would specify that the use of hand-propelled vessels on rivers and streams in the National Elk Refuge is a wildlife-dependent recreational use, changing the statutory definition of that term for a single national wildlife refuge.  Proponents of H.R. 3492 contend that it would restore management authority over paddling to park and refuge managers but, in fact, it would deny managers the authority to exercise their professional judgment and management discretion regarding the use of hand-propelled vessels throughout the parks.  H.R. 3492 would also circumvent the not-yet-completed public process to finalize the Snake River Headwaters Comprehensive River Management Plan. 

 

Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks

 

In Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, all waters are open to hand-propelled vessels unless they have been closed to that activity by special regulations in Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations (36 CFR).   

 

In Grand Teton National Park, special regulations in 36 CFR Section 7.22 have allowed abundant opportunities for paddling or floating on almost all the waters except for those in the remote, mountainous high country.  Many thousands of visitors enjoy kayaking, canoeing, floating, and paddle boarding on the many lakes, including Jackson, Jenny, Phelps, Emma Matilda, Two Ocean, Taggart, Bradley, Bearpaw, Leigh and String Lakes.  And, the iconic 26-mile stretch of the Snake River along the Teton Range though the park, considered one of our nation’s premier float trips, attracts over 60,000 paddlers each year to the park.  Only a 1,000-foot stretch section of the river, immediately downstream of the Jackson Lake Dam, is closed due to public safety and Homeland Security concerns. 

 

Many paddling opportunities also exist in Yellowstone National Park.  Of the 168 lakes within the park, only five are closed to boating, which provides ample opportunities for paddling, while also providing at least some opportunity to experience lakes in a pristine natural state.  Over 1,300 paddlers recreate annually on the Lewis River Channel between Shoshone and Lewis lakes.  The park issues an average of over 2,000 permits per year for non-motorized boating vessels.

 

Since 1971, special regulations in 36 CFR Section 7.13 have closed certain waters in Yellowstone National Park to vessels, including Sylvan Lake, Eleanor Lake, Twin Lakes, and Beach Springs Lagoon and on all park rivers and streams, except on the channel between Lewis Lake and Shoshone Lake, which is open only to hand-propelled vessels.

 

While our regulations do close some waters to boating, they provide a balanced approach that includes opportunities for a wide variety of recreation, including the use of hand-propelled vessels.


The National Park Service Organic Act requires the NPS to provide for the enjoyment of park resources and values.  This includes both opportunities for recreational activities and to experience the parks in their natural state.  For over 40 years, the balanced approach provided by these regulations has successfully allowed for a variety of uses, including paddling, while also protecting the ability of park visitors to experience the solitude and wildness of pristine rivers in their natural state, without the visual intrusion of vehicles or watercraft.  Millions of visitors come every year to Yellowstone to experience the natural wonders of the park.  People from all corners of the planet are able to view the iconic Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, paddle on Shoshone Lake, watch wolves in the foggy mornings along the banks of the winding Lamar River and experience the roar of the Yellowstone River as it travels through the Black Canyon. 

 

The National Park Service Organic Act also requires the NPS to make and publish such rules and regulations necessary or proper for the use and management of the parks so that they remain unimpaired for future generations.  H.R. 3492 would fundamentally alter this authority by preventing the NPS from promulgating new regulations to prevent potential future impacts associated with boating in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.  

 

Many of the areas that would be opened to boating by H.R. 3492 see very little human activity and represent some of the most intact, pristine landscapes anywhere in the contiguous United States.  There may be no other scenic resource like this in the United States, and possibly the world, where large intact river systems and their environments are allowed to remain in a wild, ecologically pristine state.  The National Park Service has a responsibility to recognize and protect this uniquely Yellowstone experience.  H.R. 3492 would not only arbitrarily open all of the waters in both parks to boating, but would prevent the NPS from promulgating any future regulations that might be necessary to ensure the proper management of boating on these waters.    

 

The National Elk Refuge

The primary purpose of the National Elk Refuge, as identified in statute and executive order, is the conservation of wildlife resources.  The Gros Ventre River corridor between the National Elk Refuge and Grand Teton National Park is a heavily used ungulate winter range, a spring and fall migration corridor for elk and bison, and vital year-round habitat for moose.  Management of this area as wildlife habitat is key to meeting the purpose of the refuge.

H.R. 3492 redefines the term “wildlife dependent,” a bedrock term in the National Wildlife Refuge Administration Act, as amended by National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 (P.L. 105-57, “Improvement Act”), as it is applied to the National Elk Refuge.  A key component of the act is that individual national wildlife refuges across the country (currently numbering 561) be managed as a coherent “system.”  Enactment of H.R. 3492 would undermine this basic tenet by micromanaging activities at a single national wildlife refuge through federal statute.

Conclusion

This precedent-setting bill as introduced would prohibit land managers from meeting their statutory responsibilities to properly regulate the use of federal lands.  The Department believes strongly that the existing authority granted by Congress to the NPS and FWS through the Organic Act and National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act is critical to the proper management of these lands for all Americans.   

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to present the views of the Department on this legislation.