Packrafters hoof through remote mountain valleys before floating downstream in small inflatable boats. Somehow that’s sparked a battle over what’s best for Yellowstone National Park. Plus the uphill grind for mountain bikers in the Wilderness.
By Frederick Reimers | Photographs by David Stubbs
The trail into Pacific Creek is a hell of a mess. In many places horses have trampled a mud bog 10 feet wide. In others, four redundant parallel horse tracks blast across the spring meadow like a four-lane highway. It’s the last weekend in May, and our group of four navigates through the shin-deep mud and across streams swollen with snowmelt. We plan to hike 11 miles into the Teton Wilderness, make camp, and then float back out on Pacific Creek in lightweight, inflatable boats. Four-piece paddles and lifejackets are fastened to our backpacks.
Seemingly innocuous, a packraft is a five-pound, five-foot-long inflatable that resembles a pool toy. The boats are an increasingly popular tool for backcountry adventurers moving through rough country via a combination of backpacking and floating. Such rafts are legal transportation on this outing, but, like all other human-powered watercraft, they’re banned from 99 percent of the 7,500 miles of navigable rivers and streams in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. “It’s baffling to me that horses have this kind of impact on the land, and yet my tiny boat is the thing that’s being kept out of the backcountry,” says Forrest McCarthy, a 47-year-old river guide and veteran conservation advocacy staffer from Jackson, Wyoming.
The other thing that baffles McCarthy is the firestorm that he and a few friends have ignited in attempting to get access for their tiny boats. Specifically, they enlisted Congress to enact a bill that would require the National Park Service to open some of those waters. The conservation community’s backlash has been bracing. Frequent columns and letters in regional papers by those who oppose the idea label them as “selfish funhogs,” “poachers,” and “childish adults.” Jack Turner, author of The Abstract Wild, writes in one op-ed: “I know some of the people in the paddling crowd. I believed that they were conservationists at heart, devoted to values I thought we shared. It turns out they are not. They are just jocks.”
The condescending attacks have been frequent and vicious enough that one commenter in High Country News analogized the bullying tactics to those of the anti-science Tea Party.
With Yellowstone, discourse deescalates quickly. Events affecting the world’s first national park become flashpoints for issues across the West, from shaping wildfire policy after the devastating 1988 fires to the reintroduction of wolves in the 1990s. Skirmishes over snowmobile access stretch back two decades. In 2002, park attendants made national news by wearing gas masks to take entrance fees from visitors on noxious two-stroke sleds.
But this time, it’s a civil war. The rift packrafting has revealed lies within the conservation movement itself. It’s a weird fight between pure conservationists and a subset you might label conservation-minded recreationalists. And the kerfuffle may just alienate these natural allies at a time when more serious threats are building.
Several miles up the Pacific Creek trail, we find snow patches in shadier spots. Much of the trail damage we saw earlier dates to 2014. “We’re the first in this year,” says McCarthy. “No footprints or horse tracks in the snow.” McCarthy has been a wilderness guide his entire adult life, leading climbers up the Grand Teton, scientists across Antarctic glaciers, and adjudicated teenagers through the Montana backcountry. He has also lobbied in Washington, D.C. for the conservation group Winter Wildlands Alliance that fights for access and protection for backcountry skiers. On this trip, he’s brought a packet of the ashes of his recently deceased dog to spread in the natural world. “To really engage with wilderness, my ADHD requires me to use my body,” says McCarthy. “I’ve got to get out there and roll around in it.”
The Teton Wilderness is one piece of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, 22 million acres of contiguous wildlands at the intersection of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana anchored by Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. It’s cliché to call it America’s Serengeti—a term perhaps better applied to Alaska—but thanks to hard-fought conservation battles and reintroduction efforts it is still populated by herds of bison and elk, solitary moose and bighorn sheep, and the endangered wolf and grizzly bear. On our hike we spot handprint-sized wolf tracks and griz prints the size of pie plates stamped into the muddy trail.
After the 11-mile hike, we drop our packs beside the galloping, spring-high creek and break out the packrafts, rolled into bundles the size of rugby balls. It takes 15 minutes to unfurl the boats and inflate them. Rain falls just as we launch, which is fine because we’re now wearing drysuits. Craig Ball, a carpenter from Jackson, pushes his packraft from shore and says, “I call it my NAV—nature appreciation vehicle.”
Packrafts emerged as a wilderness craft in Alaska nearly 30 years ago. Trekkers used them to cross big, swift rivers, or to float their way to a new trail or mountain range. In Patagonia, packraft treks that cover hundreds of miles in rugged country are common. Some packraft journeys take months and gain more than 4,000 miles. At least nine companies now make the boats. The biggest, Alpacka Rafts, reports their sales have been doubling every two years.
Because they live in the Greater Yellowstone, McCarthy and his friends look here for packrafting routes. They often float remote Teton Wilderness rivers that flow into Yellowstone. But when their GPS units indicate the park boundary, they disembark and complete the trek on foot. Not that park rangers or the public take note. “There’s no one to offend. There is never anyone back there,” says McCarthy.
Yellowstone is one of the only U.S. National Parks with a wholesale ban on floating rivers. (A single three-mile stretch between Lewis and Shoshone lakes is the only exception.) The ban was enacted 65 years ago to protect trout from overfishing, though fishing from shore has always been allowed. Paddlers contend that it was never meant to exclude recreational paddling, but Yellowstone has kept the ban in place despite years of lobbying from the sport’s community. Most recently, after the upper Snake River Watershed received Wild and Scenic status in 2013, the Park Service refused to consider paddling as a potential use under a new management plan. The boaters, including advocacy group American Whitewater, believed that the Park Service’s actions were illegal. But rather than challenge that in court, they decided to go the legislative route. And that’s when the issue heated up.
Earlier this year, Wyoming Republican Congressman Cynthia Lummis submitted the Yellowstone and Grand Teton Paddling Act. It requires the park service to study the feasibility of recreational river paddling in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and to create new paddling opportunities within three years if the bill becomes law. It excludes commercial operations. A similar bill passed the House committee last year, which Wyoming’s Republican Senator John Barrasso also submitted to the Senate.
That Lummis and Barrasso are notably anti-environment (Lummis’ League of Conservation Voters score is six percent and she’s a major advocate in delisting the wolf from endangered species status) is just one of the objections from the conservation community. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the National Parks Conservation Association both oppose the bill on the basis of impact to wildlife. They’re also concerned about the spread of dangerous aquatic invasives like the New Zealand mud snail and the spiny waterflea. Other opponents contend that there will be social impacts. “Visitors will be distracted by scenes of fluorescent technology cutting through the heart of some of our nation’s most treasured landscapes,” wrote Jackson wildlife biologist Franz Camenzind in one op-ed.
Critics note that there are plenty of river stretches nearby where paddlers can float, including a popular 26-mile stretch of the Snake through Grand Teton National Park, and that all lakes in the parks allow boats. Mostly, they say, shouldn’t some places just be free from humans? As Camenzind writes, “Our parks should be the most protected and most intact parts of this greater landscape. They should not become pleasuring grounds for a select group of adventure seekers. Why is it that we seem to want to conquer everything like dogs running feral across the landscape?”
We float five miles under stormy skies, rumbling through a wooded canyon to an open valley where the creek sweeps left then right between grassy banks. Along the way we spot a pair of otters who poke their heads out of the current in curiosity. Lower down, beaver slap their tails and duck underwater. At one straightaway, we catch sight of the rumps of a few elk hightailing into the forest.
That evening, McCarthy props up a blackened cook pot among campfire coals and responds to the list of objections voiced against paddling in Yellowstone. “Cynthia Lummis is my Congressperson,” he says. “Who else am I going to go to in government?” (Lummis is the only House Representative for the sparsely populated state of Wyoming.) He continues: “Why doesn’t anyone trust the Park Service to be able to regulate the paddling to reasonable levels?” (The practice is managed responsibly in the Grand Canyon, Olympic National Park, and Yosemite, where just this year more river segments opened to boating.) McCarthy suggests that low permit numbers could eliminate the need for special facilities. And Yellowstone could charge a permit fee to cover costs, as other parks do.
McCarthy also suggest that the paddling bill would likely trigger more educational efforts around invasive aquatics, something currently in short supply even for sanctioned wading fishermen. As far as impacts on the landscape, the paddlers proposed a bill amendment that selects 475 miles of waterways for the study. All are either roadside or adjacent to existing trails. “Boaters wouldn’t have any more impact than existing backcountry users already do,” says McCarthy.
Then he points out that Yellowstone’s backcountry visitation is actually flatlining. The park’s backcountry campers have averaged about 40,000 annually over the past 35 years, with a high of 55,060 in 1981 and 41,243 in 2014. That trend follows a larger decline in the popularity of backpacking. Most outdoor industry experts point to demographics—baby boomers drove the outdoor recreation rise. Now they’re aging out, and the smaller generations behind them are less able to afford the leisure time. That’s without mentioning the obesity epidemic and rise of electronic hobbies or competing pursuits like mountain biking, trail running, and rock climbing. “Backpacking is dying. Horsepacking is dying,” says McCarthy, who contends that dynamic backcountry activities like paddling and mountain biking can recruit younger members to the conservation movement. “People get motivated to save wilderness when they use it. Where is the next generation of wilderness advocates going to come from?”
Still, paddling in Yellowstone has been described as a wedge issue, and the tenor of the public debate isn’t helping. “The short memory about the role the paddling community has played in conservation is shocking,” says Aaron Pruzan, owner of Jackson Hole Kayak School. He refers not only to his own contributions in protecting 400 miles of the Snake River watershed under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, but to the tactics of historical conservation activists. Former Sierra Club head David Brower, for one, famously rallied support for the Grand Canyon and the Yampa River in the 1950s by taking people boating on the threatened waterways.
As we sit by the campfire, Craig Ball voices his response to the packrafting opponents: “It just makes me want to dig my heels in.”
For wildlife biologist and conservation advocate Franz Camenzind, the question isn’t whether paddling is an appropriate use for Yellowstone’s backcountry. It’s simply a matter of numbers. “More people means more disturbance to wildlife, and other users,” he says. “I’m sorry that it comes down to the packrafters. They’re just the newest layer.” But he’s also dug in his heels: “Can’t we have some restraint in this one last place?”
“Legislating special access to a national park by a specific user group is a bad precedent. Not only for Yellowstone, but for all our parks,” says Bart Melton, regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. Paddling advocates counter that the lack of due process is exactly what spurred them to go the legislative route. “The hallmark of the conservation community has always been open and transparent scientific process,” says Kevin Colburn, stewardship director for American Whitewater. “But the Park Service refuses to engage in that here.”
Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk says that what the paddlers aren’t considering is that a public process as outlined might go very differently from what they’ve envisioned. “There’s nothing in this bill that would restrict the users to packrafts and whitewater kayaks,” he says. “There are plenty of other user groups who could advocate for their special uses during the public process.”
For now, the two camps are at an impasse. McCarthy is simply glad the process is underway, whatever form it takes. Melton believes that the paddling and conservation communities should look past the conflict, and soon. “We have a lot of paddlers working for our organization, but we still don’t support expanded paddling in these two parks,” he says. “And just because we don’t agree with those seeking access or Lummis’ policies doesn’t mean we won’t work with them on initiatives we do agree on.”
We end our Pacific Creek float at Grand Teton National Park boundary, as demarcated by McCarthy’s GPS. Floating any farther could earn us each $500 tickets. There are no boundary markers—just long gravel bars backed by a line of willows. The Tetons frame our view downstream as we roll up our boats and stash them in our packs for the bushwhack out to the road.
“Four years from now, we might be able to keep floating the six miles down to the confluence of the Snake,” says McCarthy. “We could take out at the boat ramp there.”
From the Summer 2015 issue.