Rafting trips through Grand Canyon National Park have been awarded to noncommercial river runners through a complex online lottery system since the adoption of the latest River Management Plan in 2006. Unfortunately, that system is not currently operational ahead of the next main lottery scheduled to take place in February, 2012.
Sometime between June 16th and early September the website crashed, preventing permit seekers from even filling out forms to establish profiles (user IDs). Each river runner vying for a permit must successfully create a profile in order to enter the lottery.
Formerly, the online system was also used to award cancelled and unused permits throughout the year but in mid-September, Grand Canyon National Park officials ran a "call-In" lottery for available river dates in September, October, November and the 1st part of December, 2011, utilizing emails and phone calls instead of the online system. On November 21, 2011, with the site still broken, the NPS conducted another "call-in" lottery for a total of 33 dates in December 2011, January and February 2012.
All dates offered in the September cancellation lottery were claimed except for a launch date starting two days after the lottery ended, but the November lottery, which closed the day before Thanksgiving had disappointing results. Twenty two December and January launches remain unclaimed with no apparent mechanism in place to release them.
With the next main lottery only two months away, River Runners for Wilderness strongly urges the Park to repair the system as soon as possible or devise an appropriate, and hopefully simpler, alternate system. Permit seekers who have not created a "profile" in the past need to be able to do so as soon as possible.
For the past six years River Runners for Wilderness has urged the Park to reduce the winter trip restrictions. In early September, RRFW Co-Director Tom Martin met with the Park's new Superintendent, David Uberuaga, to discuss suggestions to facilitate better winter trip distribution, particularly important in light of the large number of unclaimed launches.
One of the topics of discussion was the relaxation of the heavy restrictions and barriers river runners face in attempting to obtain a winter permit. RRFW hopes the Park will make substantive changes in the next few weeks to help river runners utilize the available trip starts for December and January.
The NPS has a number of options available to release the dates. The last Colorado River Management Plan had a simple call-in system that was open to anyone who wanted a permit. Elimination of the restrictive one-trip-per-calendar-year rule, decreasing the $100 per person fee, and returning the trip length to 30 days as existed in the previous river plan, are all mechanisms the NPS can immediately adopt to assist river runners in obtaining a winter permit.
The twenty two unclaimed river trips are the equivalent of 8,800 user-days. A user-day is one person in the canyon for any part of one day. As part of the 2006 river management plan, the NPS had assumed that 34,087 user-days would be used by winter river trips, launching on 120 river trips. It appears that the amount of dead-of-winter demand is substantially less than was anticipated at the time of the plan's adoption.
There is no question that noncommercial summer, fall and spring demand far outstrips availability, however. While the December and January river trips go unclaimed, the river lottery for summertime dates in 2011 had over 250 applicants trying for individual dates in June. A whopping 680 applicants applied for the first two permits available immediately after September 15th, the end of the commercial motorized tour boat season. This clearly demonstrates the intense demand for a motor-free river experience when the weather is nice.
RRFW points out that an immediate relaxation of winter restrictions may help get those unclaimed winter permits into the hands of those hardy river runners willing to use them.