Changes around the bend for overused Ark |

Changes around the bend for overused Ark

Bob Berwyn

Whitewater season may still be months away, but paddlers and floaters should know that future management of the popular Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA) a favored playground for Eagle County kayakers and rafters is being shaped at a series of meetings taking place around the state at the end of January and early February.At issue is how use on the most popular sections of the river is allocated on peak days. In a collaborative process, river managers, private boaters and commercial outfitters are trying to balance reasonable access with maintaining the quality of the recreational experience, while considering the interests of riverfront property owners and protecting natural resources at the same time. One of the hot-button issues is a potential permit system for private boaters.The proceedings are of great interest to local outfitters like Lakota River Guides, which has been running tours on the Arkansas for 20 years. While owner Darryl Bangert says he’s not totally up to speed on the issue at the moment, he says he’ll watch the process closely and have more to say after the state’s outfitters get together at their annual pow-wow in early February.But Greg Kelchner, of Timberline Tours, did offer some thoughts. Kelchner says that, overall management of the river is first-class, with officials basing their actions on a solid database rather than speculation.”The AHRA is top-echelon as far as river management in the U.S.,” Kelchner says. Since Timberline is one of the top tour operators on a popular upstream white water run known as the Numbers, Kelchner says he will closely watch to see what the river managers propose for that stretch.In fact, one of the proposed action items is to extend the commercial launch window on Numbers, according to Liz Hall, who serves on the board of the Colorado White Water Association. Hall says it’s important for the public to attend the meetings if for no other reason than to learn what the proposed plan changes may mean to them.Up to now, the Class IV Numbers run has been a haven for private boaters, due to the short commercial launch window, Hall says. “Boaters should know they can expect more commercial rafts if this plan goes into action,” she explains.Kelchner says there’s increased demand from his customers for more challenging runs like the Numbers, representing a growth segment of the market for him as the sport progresses.”I like the idea of more use in the Numbers,” he says, adding that access issues at the put-in area need to be resolved to address the bottleneck there. Rumor has it that the BLM is looking at buying some land along the river to help solve the problem, he adds.Caps exceededDuring recent seasons, boater numbers on some sections exceeded pre-set caps, triggering a review of the existing plan. As a result, the management team is eyeing several changes, including a reduction in the number of commercial trips, an adjustment of launch times, an increase in the number of private boat carrying capacities and big jumps in the fees for many special use permit-holders along the river.”It’s the most commercially boated river in the U.S.,” says Ed Taliaferro, the Bureau of Land Management official who serves as river manager. More than 300,000 people per year splash and paddle their way down popular white water runs like Browns Canyon and Parkdale. Along with 59 commercial outfitters, thousands of private boaters also run the river.By comparison, about 40,000 boaters run Idaho’s Salmon River, while Oregon’s Rogue River sees about 120,000 visits, Taliaferro said during the first of four open house sessions held in Leadville Jan. 20.Also looming are permits for so-called private boaters kayakers and rafters who run the river on their own rather than as part of a commercial operation. Officials hope to forestall the permit system by adjusting the ratio and timing of private and commercial boats, but Taliaferro says increasing use would likely necessitate permits sometime in the next five years.Kelchner says he supports the proposed use-exchange, which could affect the number of commercial trips permitted in Browns Canyon. “Personally, I favor the trade,” he says, adding that 450 boats per day is too many for the run. The trade could help avoid imposition of a permit system for private boaters, something that not too many people are excited about.Kelchner says that, in his opinion, a handful of large commercial operators have had a stranglehold on Browns Canyon and that it could work in everybody’s interest for them to loosen that grip voluntarily, reaching a compromise with private boaters before a solution is dictated from outside.”I think it’s good for the sport and good for the industry. And those are two different things,” Kelchner says.A larger view?The management issues are complex, and it’s clear that the many commercial outfitters who work on the Arkansas don’t share a unanimous opinion on the proposed management changes.”From my standpoint as chairperson of the Colorado River Outfitters Association there are several things that disturb me as setting precedents that we as an industry don’t support,” says Bruce Becker. The organization hasn’t taken a formal position on the proposed changes to the plan, but the issue will be high on the agenda when the outfitters meet in early February, he says.Speaking as owner of Morrison-based Geo Tours, Becker says he can get behind certain parts of the plan, but expressed concern about fee changes that could disproportionately affect smaller outfitters. While some of the larger companies seek stability and certainty for their operations, that could equate to less choice and higher prices for consumers, he explains.Balancing the competing interests is not an easy task, says Hall, of the Colorado White Water Association. Hall says it’s important for boaters to attend at least one of the upcoming meetings, if for no other reason than to understand how the plan may affect their pastime.”If a boater does not like the plan, attending the meeting and voicing their concerns is the best way to communicate. The river managers have told us that letters and phone calls are good, but the live interaction is what makes the difference,” Hall concludes.Arkansas River management plan meetingsFriday, Jan. 27, 6 p.m to 8 p.m , BLM Field Office, Conference Room, 3170 East Main Street(Hwy 50), Canon City;Monday, Feb. 9, REI Flagship Store, 1416 Platte Street, Denver.All interested parties are encouraged to attend. For more information, contact the AHRA office at (719) 539-7289.

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