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Know the West

No cheap thrills in the Grand Canyon


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

For years, rafters and kayakers have paid to float the muddy Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park. Typically, the trip cost private boating groups about $130. When the price jumped to around $1,500 per group for the trip last spring, boaters were shocked.

Billing people to float a river is "sort of like charging someone to breathe air," says Rich Hoffman, a staffer with the advocacy group American Whitewater.

It now costs $100 just to get on the waiting list for a river permit in Grand Canyon, and another $25 each year to stay on the list. Most people wait nine years before their turn comes up. Once you're picked, you get to pay another $200 for the final permit.

"Would you pay to wait in line to see a movie?" asks Hoffman. "We're not opposed to fees, but they need to be designed well, and with public input."

The jump is part of a special program known as "cost recovery," which is usually reserved for events such as movie filming, motorcycle rallies and weddings. Superintendents in many parks include backcountry camping in this "special use" category, because fee money stays on-site, and the law requires the agency to collect enough money to pay the full cost of the activities.

Grand Canyon management realized last year that the river program was not paying for itself, according to park spokeswoman Mallory Smith, and decided to raise fees to compensate. Smith acknowledges the agency didn't give the public time to react. "We regret that," she says. "We'll never do that again."

The cost recovery fees come as a double whammy to boaters. As a part of the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program, entrance and backcountry fees in Grand Canyon are higher than ever. On top of permit costs, boaters now pay $20 per car just to get into the park and $4 per person per night in backcountry "impact" fees.

Cost recovery money goes into maintaining the permit waiting list, printing pamphlets, river information and a new waiting list newsletter, and resource protection. Fee demonstration money helps take care of canyon trails and campsites.

Hoffman says boaters are easy targets, accessing the river at a single spot. They are pulling more than their own weight, he says, while visitors who drive into the park - who are far more numerous than boaters - pay pocket change. He figures that with the new fees, boaters pay almost twice what the river program costs.

River ranger Patrick Hattaway says the higher fees have driven many boaters away. In recent years the park has received 1,300 permit applications, but this year there were only 625, he says. He estimates the park will pull in roughly 90 percent of the $275,000 it costs to run the river program for the year.

Still, the Grand Canyon program has caught the attention of higher-ups in Washington. "We realize some decisions were made that probably didn't make sense to the American public," says Dan Smith, aide to Utah Rep. Jim Hansen, reflecting on the season's fee changes.

"The boating fees in Grand Canyon have raised an awful lot of eyebrows."

For more information contact Mallory Smith at Grand Canyon National Park, 520/638-7702 or Rich Hoffman with American Whitewater at 301/589-9453.