If you think access to your favorite put-in or take-out is guaranteed forever, you had better reconsider. Private and public access areas across the United States that paddlers assumed would always be available are in danger of being shut down or restricted.
Visit www.americanwhitewater.org to find out more.
Jason Robertson, access director for American Whitewater, says the reasons aren’t complex. “It’s simply a matter of people not wanting an activity in their backyard.” Since Americans enjoy thinking they’re king of all they survey, “there’s an idea in our culture that if we own it, and see it, we control all of it.”
Rivers are public highways as much as airspace and the interstate you use for traveling to work or play. “We have a public right to recreate on the river,” says Robertson, “just as we have a right to use a sidewalk.”
Public agencies are often equally restrictive in granting access. “It’s rare that they can make an argument that will meet the other responsibilities of government, which are commerce and navigation,” says Robertson. Recreational river use by private boaters or commercial outfitters like raft companies or fly-fishing guides has been upheld by federal and state courts to constitute commerce.
Top river-access issues boil down to questions of control, archaic law, and an inability to change national plans to adapt to new uses and/or increased levels of use. The following have been identified by American Whitewater as the top river-access issues today.
Control of access to the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park is one of the biggest and most contentious issues facing boaters. The wait for a permit to float the river independently is up to 25 years now, while someone who is willing to pay about $2,000 to $4,000 can schedule a trip within the next year or so with a commercial outfitter.
Privatizing national parks is not a new issue; it’s been fought on the Colorado for years. “Even without the wait-list problems and allocations and distribution of launch permits, this is viewed as America’s river and a great treasure,” says Robertson. Our society values it, protects it, and wants opportunities to visit it. “But if you want to visit as a private individual, the standards are different. We feel the standards should be equal across the board.”
Controlling access is also a problem along the border of South Carolina and Georgia. The U.S. Forest Service bans boating on the Chattooga River headwaters to reduce conflicts with fishermen. But all governing legislation indicates that wild and scenic status for the Chattooga was established to protect recreational boating as well as fishing, hiking, and other uses.
An archaic law on John’s Creek in western Virginia has led a landowner to have boaters arrested for floating past his property. He claims to have a King’s Grant giving him control of all water use. This seemingly silly issue has ramifications throughout all the original 13 colonies, which were founded with Royal Charters.
Inability to change or adapt to new uses and/or increased levels of use is an issue with three western rivers. On Washington’s Skykomish River, the problem is finding a legal public launch that can meet the variety of uses for private as well as commercial river users.
The USFS manages California’s Forks of the Kern with a national plan written in the early 1980s. Management has not adapted to reflect changes in use, ability, or equipment. Although the trip formerly took two to three days, boaters now make the Forks run in four hours.
Demands on Idaho’s Middle Fork Salmon are higher than the USFS can manage for preserving the wilderness character of the river. Commercial and private users are pushing for more access and to replace the lottery system, which many find distasteful, inefficient, and unfair.
Funding cuts at the USGS threaten stream gauging in many states like Arkansas and Oklahoma. Gauges provide real-time information helpful in trip planning, yet up to 25 percent of national gauges face cuts in 2004. As domestic program funding is curtailed, this issue will become more widespread throughout the country.
Robertson says American Whitewater can be effective in addressing these access issues because “we are the only organization working on a nationwide basis to protect recreational access to whitewater rivers, as well as working to conserve those rivers.” With a success rate of 50 percent, AW is a political force to reckon with. It’s also a group that it pays to support. Visit www.americanwhitewater.org to find out more.