Rafting runs at cross currents Resources: Federal permits for rafting illuminate conflict between need to generate revenue to maintain national resources and pressure to protect them from overuse.

Sun Journal

August 02, 1998|By Michael Burns | Michael Burns,SUN STAFF

FISHER TOWERS, Utah -- Rushing white-cap rapids and churning whorls of angry water give way to placid currents that lap the red rock walls of West-water Canyon, its towering natural monuments carved by hundreds of millions of years of wind and water. The mighty Colorado River, which flows from western Colorado through Utah to Arizona's Grand Canyon, is a powerful magnet for river rafters.

Each year, some 22,000 visitors travel the Colorado on trips with commercial guides, licensed concessioners of the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

Federal regulators have effectively frozen that level for years, especially on the popular Grand Canyon stretches. Some trips have waiting lists of a couple of years.

It is a natural resource that has reached its human limits, with a battle over who should get federal permits and what they should cost. The dispute reflects growing strains in many national parks and other federal lands from soaring visitor use, and the debate on how best to "use" wilderness.

Battles over rights to the Colorado are not new, but typically they are about irrigation and drinking water. This conflict pits commercial outfitters and private, self-guided river runners, with the government in the middle.

Neither the outfitters nor the government agencies, which approve their rates, want to expand traffic and thus diminish the river experience. Together, they are tinkering with group sizes and trip duration to enhance use.

The story is different for private rafters, who are seeking a greater share of tightly-held user-days permits.

Two years ago, the waiting list for private river-trip permits was 18 years, with hopefuls paying $25 a year just to stay in the queue. It's now down to 10 years, through attrition, but fees have climbed steeply. Depending on the trip duration and the number of people in a group, says John Bachrach, of the recently formed, 7,000-member Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association, a trip that might have cost $130 in fees a few years ago could run to $1,700 today.

"The imposition of fees apparently has been used as a tool to limit access for the private boater," Bachrach says.

River outfitters argue that they are like the private hotels and food service and horse stables that add to the once-a-year visitor's experience in federal parks and forests.

"We are an extension of the parks service mission to make this experience available to the general public," notes Mark Grisham, executive director of the outfitters' association. "A lot of private boaters seem to think their type of experience has more validity than someone who comes in for an outfitted trip."

Now Congress wants to increase revenue from commercial outfitters by making Colorado River permits subject to open bidding by anyone, regardless of river-running experience and environmental record. A bill passed by the Senate awaits House action.

"You'd have the big corporations that have never made a river trip bidding heavy for the permits, and getting it all back from jacking up rates," says Kirk Livingstone of Western River Expeditions, the largest and oldest outfitter running the Colorado.

Some 70 percent of the public chooses commercial outfitters for their only trip down the river. These concessioners make regular cleanup trips of the river and campsites. They are under strict federal rules to leave nothing but footprints: Everything is carried out, from human waste to campfire ashes and food scraps. Demerits from rangers can affect the next year's permit allocations.

In fact, river runners are under stricter rules than other users of the Colorado. Grazing cattle crumble riverbanks and defecate on campsites, Native Americans erect "sweat lodges" for meditation, and one meander of Westwater Canyon is dubbed the "Petting Zoo" because of the numbers of domestic sheep and cows that fall in and drown there.

But federal authorities are cracking down on spurious mining claims that despoil the wild landscape along the river, and they have restricted motorboat traffic.

Pressures to increase income from national parks and federal lands are not confined to government river permits.

Since the 1996 Fee Demonstration and Revenue Act, national park admission fees have risen and new user fees have been imposed. In-park concessioners have seen their royalty rates double. Computerized ticket systems book campsite and tour reservations.

With billions of dollars in deferred maintenance projects, the National Park Service, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are trying to make a dent in a decades-old backlog of improvements and projects. The Park Service budget buys 40 percent less than it did 20 years ago, after accounting for inflation.

Meanwhile, tourism is mushrooming. The National Parks system expects to attract some 280 million visitors this year; three times as many will be counted in the national forests and other public lands.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.