State eyes rafting permits
BUENA VISTA – Don Howarth runs the Arkansas River through Brown’s Canyon about a dozen times per year, fishing with friends or rafting the Class III rapids with family.
A Denver resident, he’s been running Brown’s for 28 years and over time he’s seen it get more and more crowded.
These days, Howarth puts his 14-foot Aire in early or waits until the sun is setting to avoid the groups of kayakers and lines of commercial boats in the canyon during the day.
Because private boaters as a group exceeded their allocated use on five days of the season last year, Colorado State Parks is pushing toward a new management plan on Brown’s that will establish a “framework” for a new private permit process.
Just the mention of permitting river rats has people like Howarth concerned.
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“I don’t want to have to go through the hassle of signing up to go rafting on a certain day, and then maybe it rains that day,” Howarth said at a public meeting at REI in Denver Monday night, where most of at least 50 private boaters told State Parks representatives they didn’t want to see permitting on the Arkansas in any way, shape or form.
Government officials offered what some considered ambiguous answers to boaters’ questions about how a permit process might work or whether it could be avoided altogether. John Geerdes, assistant park manager for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, a division of State Parks, urged those in attendance with comments to “put that in writing.”
Then, the forms ran out and Geerdes just handed out his card and kept fielding questions from the fired-up boaters.
In the meeting’s confusion, some attendees did not grasp that State Parks’ proposal could stave off private permitting on the Arkansas for the next decade.
In addition to addressing private permitting, State Parks’ Integrated Concept Plan will reduce the number of commercial boats running through Brown’s Canyon by 90 boats per day on weekends and holidays and reassign them to the private sector, thus eliminating the immediate need for a new permit system.
While the private boating community stands to win, smaller commercial outfitters stand to lose more than the opportunity to run the river without hassles.
The Integrated Concept Plan’s increased fees and reduced capacity are likely to force small river operators to shut down their Arkansas operations. Up to 23 river outfitters could lose or give up their special use agreements and part of their livelihood.
The new plan may benefit the remaining river outfitters by eliminating the little guys, and possibly open the door to higher prices. This chafes some commercial and private boaters as unfair.
“I don’t think having the little guys is hurting anyone,” said Greg Felt, a commercial angling outfitter. “There are 59 outfitters and 59 families involved in this, and some of them are really freaking out.”
Five Summit County rafting companies and three in Eagle County currently offer Brown’s Canyon as a river trip to the area’s summer tourists. None is likely to lose a use agreement if the Integrated Concept Plan – or ICP – is approved, but operations will be affected.
“We’re on the cusp,” said Chris Campton, owner of Frisco-based Kodi Rafting. “Parts of the ICP would hurt us.”
Campton said his company stands to be rationed in Brown’s Canyon 14 days this summer under the Integrated Concept Plan, up from eight rationed days in 2003. That means his activity will be restricted for two weeks of a 12-week season. The situation will not spell financial disaster for Kodi, but will limit the trips he can offer his guests.
Like other companies in the region, Kodi runs the Colorado, Blue and Clear Creek, so Campton is able to shuttle rafters to different rivers when needed. Outfitters in Eagle County also run the Eagle River along Interstate 70.
Companies have been rationed in Brown’s Canyon since 1997, when commercial outfitters first exceeded their limit on that stretch of river.
While Campton said he believes that rationing the number of private boaters in Brown’s Canyon is inevitable, he said the Integrated Concept Plan is a short-term fix that benefits larger, older outfitters and is a detriment to smaller, newer ones.
Small outfitters are those that generally run less than a few thousand people down the Arkansas River annually.
Outfitters pay fees to the state based on the number of people served each season. The Integrated Concept Plan proposes to increase the minimum fee from $400 to $2,500 per year, so that a company must run around 1,000 people to justify paying the state its $2-per-client fee.
Bruce Becker, owner of Geo Tours Whitewater Raft Trips based in Morrison, said the proposed minimum fee puts smaller companies at a competitive disadvantage. With a majority of Geo Tour’s business concentrated on Clear Creek and the Upper Colorado, Becker runs less than 1,000 people through Brown’s Canyon a year.
“I would have to think long and hard about what to do if they raised it this year to $2,500,” Becker said. “I’d have to consider turning in or selling my permit because with less than three months to the rafting season, I don’t have time to adjust my marketing strategy to increase our numbers on the Arkansas.”
There are currently about 60 commercial outfitters with special use agreements on the Arkansas River. Becker, who is president of the Colorado River Outfitters Association, said that in 2003, 13 agreement holders paid the minimum $400 fee and an additional 10 paid less than $2,500.
“It’s anyone’s guess what they’ll do if the minimum exceeds what they paid last year,” Becker said.
While some will retire their agreements, others may try to sell. The Integrated Concept Plan includes incentives for outfitters to retire agreements, thereby reducing the number of outfitters on the river.