BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A U.S. House committee on Tuesday unanimously passed a measure that would lift longstanding restrictions on canoes, rafts and other "hand-propelled" vessels in rivers and streams in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
The Department of Interior, which oversees the parks, opposes the proposed changes. Agency officials contend the existing restrictions allow visitors to experience the solitude and wildness of the parks' pristine waterways without the "intrusion" of watercraft.
Some of the boating restrictions have been in place since 1971.
But the bill's sponsor, Republican Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis, said she wants to allow more paddling access so people can have "a truly unforgettable experience" when they visit the parks.
"It's time we remove the outdated federal ban on paddling," Lummis said in a statement.
Tuesday's vote by the Natural Resources Committee sends the measure to the House floor. Lummis spokesman Joe Spiering said it's uncertain when the bill will come up for a vote by the full House.
The bill also calls for federal officials to coordinate the recreational use of hand-propelled vessels on the Gros Ventre River within the National Elk Refuge.
An amendment offered by Lummis would delay the bill's effective date by three years. That would give administrators time to come up with river and stream management plans before restrictions are lifted, Spiering said.
Interior officials said the bill would prevent park administrators from using their professional judgment to decide where vessels should be allowed.
Thousands of paddlers annually already visit areas in Yellowstone and Grand Teton where non-motorized vessels are not banned, officials said. That includes 60,000 paddlers each year using the Snake River through Grand Teton, and more than 2,000 permits a year for non-motorized boating in Yellowstone, according to testimony offered by Interior officials during a November hearing on the bill.
The National Parks Conservation Association on Tuesday criticized members of Congress for forcing the paddling issue without allowing for any studies into how more boaters could affect wildlife and other visitors.
Also, because the term "hand-propelled vessels" is not defined, passage of the bill potentially could open the door to people floating through the parks on inner-tubes or other unconventional watercraft, said the group's Yellowstone program manager, Bart Melton.
"You're talking about boaters in the Lamar Valley," Melton said, referring to an area of the park known worldwide for its abundant wildlife and spectacular scenery. "Wolf watching and grizzly watching and fishing are the standard uses there....The door this opens is significant."