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For the week of Dec. 22, 1999 through Dec. 28, 1999

Make river access fair

Commentary by GREG MOORE

As whitewater rafting and kayaking have grown in popularity, non-commercial boaters find it more and more difficult to get onto Idaho’s limited-access rivers. The current odds of obtaining a permit in the Forest Service lottery system to run the Middle Fork of the Salmon, for example, are only 1 in 23.

Meanwhile, the customers of commercial outfitters can simply make a phone call and reserve space on short notice for almost any time they want.

That isn’t fair.

Though outfitters perform a valuable service to the public, one thing they shouldn’t be allowed to sell is privileged access. Access to a publicly owned resource should be equally available to all.

I know of instances in which groups of boaters who were unable to obtain a permit had to hire an outfitter to do a custom trip just so they could use the outfitter’s permit to get on the river. In that scenario, the outfitter is being permitted to erect a toll booth and say, "Pay me if you want to go down the river."

The Forest Service now has an opportunity to correct that imbalance through its new management plan for the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. One of the proposed alternatives for management of the Middle Fork and main Salmon rivers is a "freedom-of-choice" system, which would eliminate the current system of split allocations between commercial and non-commercial launches. Instead, everyone would compete in the same permit pool, and successful applicants would then decide whether to go with an outfitter or not.

The National Organization for Rivers, which for years has been advocating a system that provides fair access, has suggested that the Forest Service take the freedom-of-choice alternative one step further—by eliminating the lottery and putting everything on a reservation basis. By requiring participants to provide a list of actual people on the trip, such a system would cut out the deadwood—people entering the lottery with no concrete trip plans. Furthermore, it would be more palatable to outfitters by allowing their clients to book their trips with the outfitters just as they do now. The only difference would be that the clients’ waiting time would be the same as that of non-commercial boaters.

The Forest Service points out that adoption of a freedom-of-choice system would result in a 71 percent loss of business to Idaho outfitters if all their prospective clients competed in the permit pool (and more if they didn’t). If that’s true, then it’s just another way of saying that under the current system, 71 percent of outfitters’ clients are being allowed to butt in line ahead of non-commercial boaters.

River outfitting provides an infusion of cash into the economies of Ketchum and Stanley, and a good source of local employment. It’s a great summer job; I know because I used to do it. However, management policy toward outfitting should be based on public need, not outfitters’ incomes. Commercial considerations should not be allowed to trample over the public’s right of access to public rivers.

The Forest Service is accepting comments on its proposed alternatives until Feb. 1. The address is: Salmon-Challis National Forest, Box 600, Salmon, ID 83467, Att. FC-RONRW SEIS.

Greg Moore is a copy editor and reporter for the Idaho Mountain Express.


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