The Yellowstone Paddling Dilemma

Hand Propelled Vessels are banned in Yellowstone National Park. This is in direct violation of the Park's founding principles. Not only should HPVs be allowed on Yellowstone's waterways but their presence will improve the health of the ecosystem.


by Chase Jordan | 2014-07-01 00:00:00-06

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Ryan Jordan, the author's dad, packrafting on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

The Yellowstone Paddling Dilemma

In 2012, several kayakers illegally attempted a run of the Yellowstone River. This endeavor lead to a helicopter, horseback, and foot pursuit through the Yellowstone River’s Black Canyon. The kayakers were fined $5,000 each and were banned from Yellowstone National Park (YNP). After the appeal to the District Court of Montana, their sentence was twenty-five dollars apiece, a lifetime ban from YNP and the closing statement, “Do not bring this frivolity into my courtroom again” (Ammons). Doug Ammons and the rest of the kayaking community are not the only groups unjustly affected by the ban. The canoeing and packrafting communities also suffer. This “frivolous” ban on boating on the rivers of YNP is contrary to the legislature governing the administration of the Park and is a violation of the principles on which YNP was founded.

The prohibition of paddling is inconsistent with legislative documents promoting the principle of the enjoyment of the populous. The earliest document demonstrating this principle was the Dedication Act of 1872. This act created and described YNP as a “pleasuring-ground”, and states that one of the purposes of the Park is to provide “for the enjoyment of the people” (Dilsaver; MacDonald). Additionally, this same goal is stated in YNP’s Strategic Plan, which says that the Yellowstone is set aside for the satisfaction of the current and future generations (Menard, et al 4). The prohibition on Hand Propelled Vessels (HPVs) is in direct violation of this principle which is expressed in each document because of the rarity of conflicts resulting from multiple user types and rarity of discrimination.

Social scientists have determined that user conflicts occur rarely and when they do occur, they seldom have a detrimental effect on the enjoyment levels of recreators. In a study conducted in Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, near Missoula, MT, where high instances of conflict between hikers and mountain bikers were thought to occur, less than 20% of the perceived conflicts resulted from actual behavior. In fact, both the backcountry cyclists and the hikers agreed that the perceived conflicts rarely affected the group or person’s experience and their enjoyment (Watson, Williams, and Daigle 68-69). Therefore, it is sensible to reach the conclusion that conflicts between paddlers and fishermen while floating or trail users during portages would only be perceived and would not negatively affect the enjoyment of the populous of Park users. In fact, this data suggests that paddling is not inconsistent with the Park’s goals, and allows paddling to be considered for recreational purposes.

However, because this ban is in place, a significant segment of recreationalists feels discriminated against. In fact, 10.2 million Americans kayak and 20.6 million Americans canoe (Vonk 26). This segment of the American populous totals over 30 million people, not including packrafters and Adirondack paddlers, among many other types of paddling; and the discrimination against this large group of users should be minimized. The allowance of HPVs on Park rivers would minimize this discrimination and would enhance how YNP administers the Park based on the values and legislation governing the Park.

Allowing HPVs on the rivers of YNP would not cause severe biological impacts, as claimed by conservationists and park rangers, but instead it would be consistent with the legislation in place to protect the Park’s biotic resources. Yellowstone’s mission statement states that its purpose is to protect the Park’s natural resources including, but not limited to, the grizzly bear, wolf, elk, bison, and its prolific aquatic species: the Yellowstone cutthroat trout (Menard, et al 4).

Permitting HPVs would not reduce the stability of populations in comparison to other allowed recreational activities, such as, snowmobiling. In fact, over two thirds of passes by snowmobiles results in either injury or death (Davenport, and Switalski 347)! This is a severe loss of energy producers in the ecosystem and is a major negative effect of snowmobiling. Another negative effect caused by snowmobiling is a decrease in native wetland plants and an increase in noxious weeds of the sedge family (Davenport, and Switalski 347; Watson, and Dalwitz). Native wetland plants are shown to suffer a 23% decrease in density and a 12% decrease in size. These decreases are coupled by a 44% increase in noxious sedge weeds, resulting in severe ecosystem disruption. Additionally, botanical disruption is caused by compacted snow which reduces the insulating air pockets in the snow and conduct cold air towards the ground. This causes a decrease in plant density and biodiversity while furthering the reduction of winter growth of perennials and evergreens, further delays seed germination, as well as negatively affecting decomposition rates of organic material, humus formation and microbial activity (Davenport, and Switalski 348). Each of these biological processes is important because there is a direct quantitative correlation between those processes and many aspects of forest growth (Chavat, Ponge, and Wolters 625). A final way that snowmobiling damages botanical life is via carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon (HC) emissions. Snowmobiles emit 54 tonnes of carbon monoxide and 20 tonnes of HCs on the peak day in YNP. This carbon monoxide reacts with the hydroxyl radical in earth’s troposphere to form CO2, which has a severe detrimental effect on the environment (Feilberg, et al 4867). This increase in CO2 causes a decrease in botanical health and efficiency through heat stress, an increase in anaerobic microbes producing toxic metabolites, and a decrease in the groundwater table (Perry, et al 826-9). The HCs produced by snowmobiles, after diffusion into the soil, inhibit plant growth and seed germination. These HCs, such as benzene, toluene, styrene, and naphthalene, increase the toxicity of the soil to inhibit the growth and germination (Pascale, et al 968-9). These effects, in conjunction with each other provide for a major impact to the biological producers of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem inside YNP. There are no consequences as severe or drastic that occur because of paddling.

In comparison to snowmobiling, hand-powered paddling does not have as drastic consequences for the biotic populations of YNP. Other than the trampled riparian vegetation at backcountry launches and take-out sites, which would be nowhere near as drastic as vegetation destruction caused by snowmobilers, hand-power paddling may actually improve habitat of one of the Park’s most prolific species: the Yellowstone cutthroat trout. The cutthroat trout requires habitat with both riparian and lotic vegetation in order to filter ultra-fine sediments from the water in order to keep gravel beds in good condition for survival, with gravel ranging from seventeen to sixty-two millimeters in diameter (Machtinger 4.) Unfortunately for the cutthroat trout certain rivers are becoming overgrown with lotic vegetation (United . . . Boating 55-104). Studies show that boating could potentially improve habitat for cutthroat trout and other similar species because boating can be correlated to the reduction in lotic vegetation (Sandström, et al; Hilton, and Phillips). Therefore, the allowance of paddling would enhance the park’s ability to provide for its prolific species and as a secondary consequence provide for the species consumers, fulfilling its goal to stabilize and improve the biotic community of YNP.

Unfortunately, the detrimental effects of snowmobiling in comparison to paddling are not the only discrepancies seen in YNP, there is also a discrepancy with the effects of motorhomes and RVs in comparison to paddling. These effects include CO2 emissions more than twice that of camping with an automobile and tent or automobile and tent trailer (PFK 3-5). Similar to CO2 emissions from snowmobiling, the increase in CO2 from motorhomes causes a decrease in botanical health and efficiency through heat stress, an increase in anaerobic microbes producing toxic metabolites, and a decrease in the groundwater table because of warming induced drought (Perry, et al 826-9).

But increased CO2 in the air is not the only detrimental effect to the environment. Formaldehyde, which is found in many motorhomes and RVs, has serious health consequences to the Kingdom Animalia (Odendahl). At temperatures greater than 70F, where formaldehyde is released into the atmosphere from commodities where it is used as a preservative, its inhalation is a cause of nasal lesions, damage to the epithelium of the nasal cavity, damage to pharynx and larynx, while also having carcinogenic properties. When formaldehyde is ingested, commonly through plants in areas where formaldehyde is present in the troposphere, it may potentially cause gastrointestinal lesions, papillomatous hyperplasia, hyperkeratosis, atrophic gastritis, and focal ulceration in the forestomach and hyperplasia (United Kingdom). Though governments make the claim that formaldehyde is not harmful at normal emission levels, the large number of motorhomes and RVs driving through YNP every year makes formaldehyde a concern for the animal kingdom (Scotland). All in all, the inhalation of formaldehyde and ingestion of formaldehyde containing plants, negatively affects the biotic realm in a degree much larger than the negative effects of paddling while not having any probable consequential improvements to the environment.

Additionally, park rangers and conservationists argue that the allowance of paddling would have severe consequences for the abiotic factors of the environment inside YNP, especially the geothermal features, which are affected in a greater degree by erosion. This concern comes especially from Yellowstone’s Dedication Act of 1872 which provides “for the preservation, from injury or spoliation, [. . .] natural curiosities, and wonders [. . .] and their retention in their natural condition” (Dilsaver; MacDonald).

Though the concerns are legitimate, they are avoidable with simple training. The American Packrafting Association’s PACKRAFT Code of Ethics may diminish this problem with only training on the fourth and eighth points of their code. The fourth point, “keep an eye on our traces” means to simply observe the impact you are making on the environment. With the institution the eighth point of the PACKRAFT Code of Ethics is apply those observations to “tread lightly”, in a way that minimizes the impacts you produce on the environment (“Code.”). Additionally, environmental impact reduction by minimal teaching on two of the principles (second and fourth) of Leave No Trace. The second point is to “travel and camp on durable surfaces”; would mean for paddlers that travelling would be limited to the waterways and any foot travel should be limited to established trails, rock, dry grasses and snow. When the paddlers camp, this point means that paddlers should spread campsites in pristine areas throughout the area in order to prevent significant and possibly irreparable impacts. If possible paddlers should try to camp in areas devoid of vegetation and should always camp at least 200 feet from riparian zones. The fourth point of Leave No Trace states “leave what you find.” This not only means to leave natural curiosities where they existed but to also leave the rivers in as pristine of a state as possible and to not transport invasive and aquatic nuisance species into the areas (“Leave.”). The spread of aquatic nuisance species is caused by the release of live bait, the release of aquatic species from one body of water to another, and the failure to clean one’s boat before launch and after takeout (“Aquatic.”). The institution of codes of ethics similar to the PACKRAFT Code and Leave No Trace would eradicate concerns about negative effects on abiotic factors of the environment, especially those concerns regarding terrain.

The ban on river paddling in YNP is additionally not necessary for the retention of validity of the 1972 Wilderness Designation. A total of 2,032,221 acres of land has been set aside as recommended wilderness and is currently being managed as a wilderness area under the Wilderness Act of 1964 (United States . . . Wilderness.; “Yellowstone.”). The Wilderness Act, which instituted the National Wilderness Preservation System states that in order for land to be eligible for continued recommendation and to be a wilderness area, that there must be “no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, [. . . and] no other form of mechanical transport” (“Act.”). The permission of paddling in YNP would not disrupt Yellowstone’s 1972 recommendation by not introducing motorized usage into those areas.

If YNP fairly considered the allowance of paddling on park rivers the “frivolity” that was spoken of by the judge would not infiltrate and waste the time of our court system. If a permit system was instituted in order to prevent destruction from overuse of the paddling community, the National Park Service would still be able to enhance their ability to provide for the enjoyment of the people, and may enhance the biotic and abiotic factors of the riparian and lotic ecosystems while not causing the cessation of the possibility of induction into the National Wilderness Preservation System. Therefore, in order to solve the dispute between the paddlers and YNP and prevent time spent frivolously in the court system, the park should allow for limited access to the streams and rivers in YNP via the institution of paddling into the backcountry permit system.

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Chase Jordan (left) with BSA Venturing Crew 1 of Bozeman, MT.

About the Author

Chase Jordan just completed his sophomore year at Bozeman High School. His passions include playing the viola, tenkara fly fishing, backpacking, and packrafting. This essay was written as part of Mr. Maxwell's AP English course in the spring of 2014. At the time of publication, Chase and four other friends will be attempting a 13-day packrafting circumnavigation of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Follow their trip online via satellite at

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"The Yellowstone Paddling Dilemma," by Chase Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2014-07-01 00:00:00-06.