Every winter until a few years ago, Nicole Silk could practically guarantee she would spend at least one week of her spring, summer or fall blissing out on a raft on a pristine wilderness river.
There was no reason for her to believe otherwise — that’s how it had been for as long as she’d been a private boater. Each year from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s, she and her most trusted river friends would pay $6 each to submit an application for a permit that would allow them to raft one of the West’s nine most coveted rivers.
They’d all have kept their summer calendars open, believing someone would score a permit on the Green, the San Juan, the Middle Fork or the Yampa, for example. Almost without fail, someone would, and the group would start planning their vacations. On their launch date, they’d row their kids, boats, camping supplies and, sometimes, dogs down an artery threading through the landscape, where they could disengage from the worries of their domestic lives and re-engage with friends, families and themselves.
But the days of private boaters counting on scoring yearly permits are over, confirmed by statistics released by Recreation One Stop, or recreation.gov, the federal interagency outdoor-adventure-reservation booking system, for seasons 2022 and 2023.
Kevin Colburn, the national stewardship director of American Whitewater, called the data “stunning.” In 2022, applications for permits on four of the West’s most sought-after rivers — Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon, the Main Salmon, the Selway and the Snake River through Hells Canyon, known together as the “Four Rivers” — surpassed 60,000 for a total of 1,054 permits. That’s a 300% increase over applications in 2012.
Closer to Colorado, in 2022 more than 12,000 boaters applied for 430 permits on the San Juan River, which starts in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado and flows through northern New Mexico and Utah; 18,325 applied for 300 permits on the Yampa River, which starts near Steamboat Springs and flows through Dinosaur National Monument; and 11,405 boaters put in for 674 permits on the Green River stretch through Desolation and Gray canyons also in Utah.
This year’s numbers are down just slightly, with 58,592 people applying for the “Four Rivers;” 11,749 for the San Juan, and 11,325 on the Deso-Gray. Yampa numbers were up by roughly 200. And both years’ numbers are thousands higher than they were a decade ago.
When 2023 lottery winners were announced, boaters who lost started blaming a failed system. Jon Donaldson, who owns the commercial rafting company River Runners in Buena Vista and does private trips with five families spanning the country, said both spouses in each family put in for three to five permits and none were successful.
In a text thread afterward, Donaldson’s friend Scott Thomes wrote, “Is there a possibility [the system’s] been hacked?”
To which Chad Crabtree replied, “There’s no way that many more people are applying for the hellish-work-nonstop-non vacation [of river trips] as their data suggests. Has to be bots. Go back to the mail-in system until the government can figure out how to eliminate the bot.”
Scott Whitacre responded, “I didn’t even blow up my big boat last year because I didn’t get any permits … for the last 3 years. That’s just not right.” And Silk says rafting newcomers in chat rooms exclaiming, “I got a permit. I’m in over my head. I need help,” are clogging the system and potentially creating safety issues on rivers.
In December 2022, through direct email and social media channels, American Whitewater sent a survey to 30,000 boaters asking for their feelings about the permit system. Approximately 1,300 people responded; Colorado was the most vocal. Sixty-four to 81% of respondents felt their chances of securing a permit for various rivers in the lower 48 states were unacceptable.
Which raises the question: What, if anything, can be done if the numbers keep growing?
How right went wrong, according to a former employee of rec.gov
Sheri Hughes has some strong opinions about the current state of the lottery system, and she’s not afraid to share them. Her thoughts are useful because of the many decades she worked for the Forest Service and federal interagency professional river-management groups, and her work on permits and with rec.gov. Hughes belongs to the River Management Society and in 2004 was awarded river manager of the year.
Donna Leuzinger, who was river information clerk for The Salmon-Challis National Forest for more than a decade, told The River Radius podcast that in 1962, the U.S. Forest Service counted 625 private trips on the Middle Fork. By 1971, the number rose to 3,250. In 1973, federal managers implemented permit systems on a few select rivers. And in 1980, Hughes started as a seasonal ranger at Boundary Creek, the Middle Fork put-in.
Back then, people sent their permit applications to Idaho on postcards through the mail, Hughes said. She and her co-workers would put them in a plastic bag, shake it, close their eyes and pull them out. Many people got lucky because the odds were good. But as boating grew in popularity with more user-friendly equipment, more people applied. By 2010, about 9,800 submitted applications for Middle Fork permits. In 2020, 17,000 did. By 2021 the number increased to over 22,000. And last year, it remained roughly steady.
Bill Dvorak, who started Dvorak Expeditions in Nathrop, in 1984, says the Yampa got its management plan in 1973. Back then, a nonprofit could do trips for free while for-profits paid 50 cents per day per user. But two years later, demand was so high that the feds did away with freebies, Dvorak said. These days, the price a private boater pays to apply for a Yampa permit is $15, a multi-day permit fee there is $185 and the odds of getting a Yampa permit are nearly 1 in 60.
Some people think river managers could increase the odds of more people obtaining the right to float by increasing the number of available permits. But Hughes says that would be a “shitstorm for the infrastructure, environment and experience of the river” and believes the number of available permits should be lowered.
“On the Salmon, numbers are too high. The river looks really overused at the end of the season. It’s beat to death,” Hughes said. She cited examples on the river corridor: the ever-expanding campsites, tree roots gone bare and microtrash left behind. “But people don’t see the obvious resource damage or overuse. It’s the theory of relativity—as long as it doesn’t look like a downtown Manhattan park with garbage everywhere, they think conditions are incredible. Sometimes, I don’t think they care, because it’s all about getting down the river.”
Hughes believes increasing permits could cause more disappointment: “People would say ‘yeehaw!’ if another 1,000 permits became available, but guess what? Managers would have to limit camps, shrink group sizes and decrease days you could be on the river. Is it that important to have a permit in your name that you are willing to sacrifice the qualities of a trip?”
Lisa Byers, a river ranger on the Middle Fork, told The River Radius that someday in the not-too-distant future, river managers will need to address the high-use issue. When that time comes, the public will be invited to a “robust involvement process.” But Hughes says don’t hold your breath: “Hardly any area has completed a successful management plan re-do in several years, because no manager has the guts to open that can of no-win whoop-ass.” So for the time being, it seems, permit-obtaining difficulties will remain.
But Silk still wants the newbies asking strangers to row them down the river addressed, and Hughes says there’s another culprit: people who get permits and don’t cancel them in a timely manner.
Penalizing river permit cancellers
Unsuccessful boaters who want to get on a river badly enough check rec.gov maniacally, seeking a cancellation far out enough on the calendar to rally their group, pack up their gear and travel to the put-in for that launch date. If the stars align, they’ll pounce. But frequently, cancellations show up just days before a launch, and for many, that’s too late to take advantage of another person’s poor planning.
Hughes said last year, she saw about a 30% “turn back” rate on the Middle Fork. That’s a far cry from the ‘80s and ‘90s, when “nobody turned these trips back, nobody did a cancellation,” she said. On rivers where managers don’t control the flow, like they do on the Grand Canyon, low flows could contribute to cancellations. But the current situation is “bullshit,” Hughes said. And she thinks application fees should be higher, up from the current $25 to $100, because raising them could force more people to have “skin in the game,” she said.
“If you want to go down the Middle Fork, you write a check to the managing agency that has an investment in your intent,” she added. “The only thing that’s saved the Grand Canyon is their permits are expensive and there’s no mercy refunds.”
When everyone starts wanting a finite resource, “you have to ratchet down and not give it away frivolously,” she said. “I’m not a fan of pricing people out of their federal resources, but damn, the people I see at put-ins have spent thousands of dollars to get there. If anyone said a $100 application fee was too expensive, that’s an unrealistic complaint.”
Some agencies, like the National Park Service, which regulates permits on the Grand Canyon, create high penalties for cancellations. On the Colorado, for $25, you’re entered into both the current year’s lottery and a secondary lottery consisting of cancellations, Hughes said. If you draw a date you’re interested in, you plunk down a $200 deposit for a small trip of up to eight people or $400 for a standard trip of 16 people within 30 days of accepting. “You can change the names of the people you’re taking, but if people decide they’re not going, you’re not getting your money back,” Hughes said. “You have to make a strong commitment. That’s what makes it work.”
Hughes thinks it would help to raise application fees on rivers other than the Grand Canyon. “But you know people would whine like stuck pigs about the government changing something like that,” she said.
Regulations vary on the number of permits commercial outfitters can get. Some are based on historical data, while others are calculated by “service days” (number of people + days they can operate). Some commercial companies compete with private boaters for permits. And there are those who think the solution to the private permit limit is to make outfitters give up some of their permits.
But the commercial rafting industry is a powerful lobby. “That’s the one flaw in the Grand Canyon situation,” Hughes said. “Those outfitters down there are million- and billion-dollar outfitters. And one challenge with older river management plans is that they were set 40 to 50 years ago, and don’t acknowledge the increase in private boaters.”
John Vrymoed, President of the Grand Canyon Private Boaters’ Association, says Hughes is wrong on this point, however. In 2006, the organization filed a lawsuit with the National Park Service that resulted in a 50/50 private/commercial permit allocation, with the majority of commercial trips launching in the summer and the majority of privates in the shoulder season or winter.
One good thing about Grand Canyon National Park’s permit system is that it offers “points” to unsuccessful application seekers which improve their odds next time. Steve Sullivan manages permits for the 277-mile Colorado River stretch through the Grand Canyon and he told The River Radius that the Park Service increases odds for people who’ve never been on the Colorado or whose last run down it was several years prior. Hughes said you get one chance if you boated the river the year before, two if you boated two years prior, three for three years past, and up to five tries for a permit if the last time you did it was five years before.
“The problem is there are so many people who can’t go that there are very few in the system who don’t have five points,” Hughes added. And where other rivers count only the permit-holder in their systems, the Grand Canyon counts each trip a person takes, either as the leader of a trip or a passenger, “so they’re not moving that many people through the system,” she said.
Why so much hassle for a resource taxpayers own and who believe their ability to float them is a birthright?
At the end of the day, the federal government and river managers just want things to be fair and equitable while protecting each river’s ecosystem, Hughes said. The number of people who can float at one time, the number of designated camps and the amount of human traffic they can sustain is specific to each.
On the Green River between Desolation and Gray canyons, for instance, regulation is tight — just 647 private parties are allowed to launch between May 1 and Sept. 30. On the Grand Canyon, only 503 private permits are issued for all four seasons. But unlike on the Salmon and the Grand Canyon, on Deso-Gray there are no assigned campsites. Seasoned boaters know to do their research ahead of time and have more than one camp choice in mind for each night.
Emma Tejada, who owns Sheri Griffith Expeditions in Moab with her father, said, “Most private boaters know the river and use proper river etiquette. But there seems to be a trend that people who aren’t qualified to run rivers are picking up permits and they end up places they shouldn’t be,” like on side of the Green owned by the Northern Ute Tribe.
Tejada said the Utes closed their reservation to boaters in 2018 after a historical site was disturbed. A representative from The Utah Guides and Outfitters Association has been in touch with a tribe representative, but at this point the tribe isn’t open to camping on their side, she said.
Curbing the river permit crunch
Something positive is happening on the Deso-Gray, however. Last year, the BLM, which administers its permits, instituted a system that penalizes people who canceled their reservations after a certain date, Tejada said. Do it, and you can’t put in for two years. That should weed out some of the people who are just rafting “because their bro-in-law said put in an application and they have no intent of going,” Hughes said. “This is where that 30% turn-back comes from. When they learn they can’t transfer, they cry and snivel. But we’re trying to make it fair for the people who really want it.”
During an outdoor industry lobbying week in Washington, D.C., in February, Tejada walked the halls of Congress with other commercial outfitters lobbying for a change in the permitting system that would allow them to incentivize permittees to make unused days available to others. Pooled permits would potentially be available to private boaters, too.
That would be good news for “privates,” who, in the American Whitewater survey, indicated the “overwhelming preferred way of allocating permits is through a weighted lottery, in which an applicant’s odds increase with each failed attempt,” Colburn said.
Meanwhile, Nate Ostis, a lifelong boater and founder of Wilderness Rescue International, says everyone deserves to put in for a permit, even if they don’t have boating skills yet. His company teaches river rescue training and wilderness first aid.
“After all, it might take them 30 years to get a permit, and in the meantime they can keep building their skill sets,” Ostis said. And to the people moaning about the permit system being flooded, he counseled, “If you want to complain about something, complain about water rights on the Colorado, or start advocating for rivers at risk.”
But Tejada may have found the easiest way for permit losers to still get their time on a river. Not long ago, she added a “whitewater school” to her offerings. “It’s basically for people who can’t pull a permit who want to row Gates of Lodore or Cataract Canyon,” she said. “We call it school, like we’re teaching people, but it’s really so they can access those highly coveted places. It happens yearly in conjunction with the company’s training trips or for charter groups who couldn’t pull a permit.”
Tejada’s company will supply everything a boater needs, including a guide. These trips are less expensive than doing a traditional outfitted excursion. A fully outfitted five-day Gates of Lodore trip costs $1,550 per person, whereas in whitewater school, depending on the year, a Gates of Lodore runs between $1,000 and $1,300, she said.
“It’s kind of a diamond in the rough,” Tejada added. But it’s a guaranteed way to get on a river.
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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 3:07 p.m. on Friday, March 24, 2023, to correct permit allocation numbers on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.