A decision to ban stand-up paddleboarding on the Little Spokane River in May garnered a torrent of criticism from some dedicated users and highlighted an ongoing challenge: How do land managers handle an unprecedented influx of outdoor recreation?
“It’s the yin and the yang,” said Cindy Whaley, a Washington State Parks and Recreation commissioner from Spokane.
“We have to provide recreational opportunities and places for people to recreate, and we have to protect those assets that are unique and special. It’s a balancing act.”
On Wednesday, Washington State Parks suspended its ban on SUPing (stand-up paddleboarding). State Parks will collect information, monitor use on the Little Spokane over the summer and start a decision process – including public feedback – in the fall. Whaley urged SUPers to participate in that process.
But the rationales that underpinned the initial ban highlight the “balancing act” land managers are attempting.
When Washington State Parks first banned SUPing, on May 25, it defended the decision with a triad of arguments: increased river use, an increase in illegal activity, and the fact SUPers are more likely to fall or get into the water, which is illegal in the 1,500-acre Little Spokane River Natural Area.
While the first two arguments certainly connect, the idea that SUPers are more likely to fall or voluntarily get into the water versus, say, a sit-on-top kayaker (which the city now rents on the Little Spokane) seemed like a stretch to some. Upset users protested, noting that State Parks provided no concrete evidence linking SUP users and illegal shenanigans.
Some experienced water recreationists agree there has been a use problem on the Little Spokane with big crowds and bad behavior during last summer. But they also said Washington State Parks didn’t do much to enforce and educate about the existing laws.
That final piece – enforcement and education – is important and was highlighted by Diana Dupuis, the area manager for State Parks, in a form letter she sent to some bothered users.
“While there are paddleboarders who are experienced users and respectful of the rules and regulations regarding the Little Spokane, there is a large and growing user group that has neither the experience nor the respect necessary to protect the Little Spokane,” wrote Dupuis in the letter forwarded to The Spokesman-Review. “Low cost, easy purchases from big box vendors have opened more challenging water sports, like paddleboarding, to these user groups. We have struggled to regulate them because we simply do not have enough staff to provide a presence at the put-in sites on a continual basis to provide education and our signs are either unread or ignored. Enforcement on the actual water way is also a struggle as it is a major safety issue for our rangers to issue tickets on a waterway such as the Little Spokane. This creates a catch-as-catch-can environment where inroads are difficult to make. This decision was made by region and area staff based on staff observation and experience and we have received many positive comments in support of this ban.”
Staffing a large and diverse park system that includes Mount Spokane, Riverside State Park and the Little Spokane Natural area can be challenging, even during a normal year.
And 2020 was not a normal year.
Outdoor recreation greatly increased. Washington State parks recorded 37,549,238 visitors in 2020, despite the fact all parks were closed from March 25 until May 3. In 2019, the agency logged 38,456,657 visitors in 12 months of operation.
In Idaho, 7.7 million people visited state parks in 2020, an increase of 1.2 million over the previous record. Of those visitors, 30% were from outside of Idaho. That led to Idaho State Parks doubling camping fees for nonresidents this week.
Farther afield, Oregon increased camping fees for nonresidents due to overcrowding, Montana saw a 30% increase in deer and elk hunting tags for nonresidents, and camping participation grew 28% nationwide, according to a High Country News story published this month.
That’s an additional 7.9 million people spending the night out nationwide in 2020.
“There is no question that, like all public land, we’ve seen a huge increase in visitation,” Whaley said. “And we’re studying that. Is that a permanent change?”
That’s an important question and one that will dictate how State Parks moves forward with the SUP question on the Little Spokane and more broadly.
“With usage increasing overall, we want to take a holistic approach to managing recreation on that portion of the Little Spokane,” said Anna Gill, a spokeswoman for State Parks in an email. “It’s been more than 30 years since that section of the Little Spokane was designated as a natural area and the rules were written.
“This is a good time for us to take a step back and make sure we’re continuing to protect the resource, given increased visitation and modern trends in recreation and the natural experience.”
Whaley emphasized the Little Spokane River Natural Area has strict rules to take care of the environment.
“It was designed to be an area that was unique and protected,” she said. “And we have just a few of those in the state.”
There is one other concern that Bernard Kessler, an avid kayaker and canoer, believes is worth highlighting.
The argument that low-cost outdoor gear has led to an increase in bad behavior is classist, he said, pointing specifically to Dupuis comment about “big box vendors” opening access to previously niche sports. He emailed his comments to the Washington State Parks Commission and provided The Spokesman-Review with a copy.
“This is a FANTASTIC example of how decisions made around regulations carry forward the insidiousness of embedded classism and racism,” he said in the email. “I am by no means suggesting this is intentional. However, when a regulator comes out and says essentially that people having access to less expensive water vehicles makes an area more accessible to them and therefore we have to ban those vehicles, we all have a pretty good idea which demographic is disproportionately left out.”
He goes on to argue that a more reasonable response to overcrowding would be to implement a permitting process for the Little Spokane.
That’s a strategy other land managers have taken during the pandemic.
Yosemite National Park recently started requiring permits for climbers making multiday attempts in the Valley.
Rocky Mountain National Park has a time-entry reservation system, as does Red Rock Canyon in Nevada.
Whaley doesn’t necessarily buy the classism argument. Instead, she said, it’s the users’ responsibility to know the rules, regulations and ethics.
“If you’re a first-time user of something, you have to understand what the requirements are,” she said.
“Of whatever you’re doing. Where can I go, where can I not go? You have to educate yourself. You have a responsibility to.”
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