As Idaho’s white-water rapids swell with an influx of adrenaline-loving crowds, a dispute is simmering between outfitters and nonprofits.
Commercial rafting companies suspect that their nonprofit counterparts - some with government support - are illegally competing with them.
The nonprofit guides feel like they’re being squeezed off the rivers by an agency that’s run by outfitters for outfitters.
In this atmosphere of mistrust, rumors spread like spray from a breaking wave.
On the Fourth of July, when a Forest Service enforcement officer stopped a group from Fairchild Air Force Base along the Lochsa River, the rumor mill turned tales of a sting operation, a flipped raft and a guide being hauled off in handcuffs.
The group’s guide said the rumor is untrue.
“That’s totally out there,” said Eli Whitman, coordinator of Fairchild’s Outdoor Adventure Program. “That’s totally wrong.”
Whitman was pulled aside and questioned by Forest Service officer Jill Barnett for a routine compliance check.
However, the state’s Outfitters and Guides Board admitted it is looking into Fairchild’s rafting trips because of complaints from commercial outfitters. Barnett passed information on to the agency at its request.
“It is an ongoing investigation so I can’t say much about it,” said William Vetesy, the law enforcement officer for the Outfitters and Guides Board.
Under Idaho law, outfitters and guides must be licensed. Outfitters and guides do not include nonprofit organizations that serve members under the age of 21.
The U.S. government also is exempt from licensing requirements as long as it’s following its own rules and regulations, Vetesy said.
Even with those clear exceptions, some outfitters smell something fishy going on down on the Lochsa.
“They do way too much business for it only to be the Air Force,” said Peter Grubb, owner of River Odysseys West. “From my standpoint, they’re government-subsidized rafting trips. … “This Air Force issue is something outfitters have been screaming about for three or four years.”
The Outdoor Adventure Program is only the latest nonprofit to draw the board’s attention.
Outfitters commonly raise the complaint of unfair competition, but they also point out that without licensing, there’s no assurance that the guides are well-trained.
The Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association boasts that Idaho has the most stringent regulations in the country for outfitters and guides and a stellar safety record.
“It’s probably one of the most regulated industries in the state,” said association president Greg Edson. “Idaho is a real model for other states.”
Paul Green, a professor of outdoor leadership at EWU, agreed that Idaho has a good reputation for safety, but he sees a big loophole in the regulating agency.
“It’s really the foxes guarding the hen house,” he said, explaining that the Outfitters and Guides Board is run by outfitters. Because it’s a self-regulated industry, some outfitters can easily circumvent the training rules, he said.
Of the five-member board, three are outfitters and guides appointed by the governor from nominations by the outfitters association.
But many outfitters are still motivated to do the right thing, he said.
“Groups like ROW, they go past the training standards in the state,” Green said. “I would trust them with my 80-year-old grandmother.”
That doesn’t mean people traveling with nonlicensed groups are in grave danger for their lives, however.
The Air Force program “beats Idaho standards by a great deal,” Green said. Not only are the guides very well-trained, he said: “They’re conservative. They get off rivers if it’s too high.”
As for the accusation that the Air Force is catering to the general public, Whitman said all his clients either have military identification, or are a dependent or friend of an Air Force member.
Despite rumors to the contrary, the trips are advertised only on base, he said.
“We keep it low cost so the lowest airman can go out and enjoy it,” Whitman said. “One guy can’t bring 35 people, just one or two friends. They might be lucky to have one friend from downtown. … A lot of these guys are really far away from home.”
The University of Idaho, Eastern Washington University and even the Boy Scouts of America have raised the ire of the commercial crowd, too.
“Fairchild and all outdoor education (and) nonprofit organizations have been scrutinized for the last decade,” said Mike Beiser, coordinator for UI’s outdoor program. “We do feel threatened every time we’re approached by a Forest Service officer.”
Last year, the Boy Scouts of America heard from the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Board that they couldn’t run the Lower Salmon River anymore.
“They told us we could not run any trips, that they were illegal,” said Clifford Crismore, council program director. But after the Boy Scouts’ attorney contacted the board, and reminded them of the provision of the law the trips fell under, the edict was dropped.
Both UI and EWU ran into problems with the Idaho outfitters.
About a decade ago, UI’s outdoor program was advertising trips off-campus, and the outfitters complained. So, the program got licensed and permitted.
Green at EWU was trying to run a commercial operation to give his students a real-life situation in which to learn outfitting. Now, his students go on internships.
Both gave up their permits in part because of outfitter complaints.
“We work just as hard, yet we can double the numbers of people we put on the river and we don’t gain financially one iota,” Beiser said. “The mission of our program is something different.”
Part of the tension between the commercial and noncommercial outfitters stems from the swelling tide of people looking for white-water thrills.
“We’re hearing all the time that the river canyons are being overused,” Grubb said. “The first people they restrict are we, the outfitters. We’re the easiest to target.”
But the nonprofits say they’ll be first to lose out.
Crismore is mulling a permit for the Lower Salmon just in case the Bureau of Land Management starts limiting launches, he said.
But getting a permit (if one’s even available) also means getting licensed and bonded, buying insurance, and paying a percentage of earnings to the Idaho Outfitters and Guide’s Board and the federal agency.
For nonprofit groups, it’s rarely cost-effective.
The benefit is, if launches are restricted - such as on the Middle Fork of the Salmon - those with a permit are guaranteed access.
Everybody else enters a lottery system with long odds.
Beiser said: “I think it’s god awful that access to federal lands has become a commodity.”
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