August 2002. This year, the Bureau of Land Management's Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area has begun a new recreational management planning process. An on-river focus group was held August 19-20. Jo Johnson of River Runners for Wilderness also represented the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association, Colorado Whitewater Association, and private boaters in general, on the trip and and at a meeting in Montrose the following evening. Steve Christianson, GCPBA member from Utah, and members of the Western Colorado Congress, an environmental & community group which has been very involved, also represented non-commercial interests. Local non-commercial boaters have not been heavily engaged in the planning process.
While the Gorge's 6 river outfitters, 2 walk-in fly fishing outfitters and the horse packing outfitter are good stewards of the Gorge, the river outfitters want to change current rules to get more launches, allow larger group sizes, and to limit private boater access.
In his keynote speech, noted author, teacher, and river runner Rod Nash urged participants to avoid the type of planning mistakes Grand Canyon National Park made 30 years ago and is still dealing with, and to remember that "Wilderness is a state of mind".
The outfitters suggested:
(1) A permit system for privates ostensibly for educational purposes, but not necessarily to limit private boater access. Currently, the fee demo form serves as a permit of sorts. Private boaters sign an agreement on the back to observe standard river rules (fire pan, toilet, etc.).
(2) A limit on private boater and fisher access, particularly during stone fly hatch/high water, with no decrease or possibly even an expansion in commercial launches. Currently, there is no limit on private boaters/fishers although BLM's target maximum is 75 people. During about 10 days in June the limit is exceeded, sometimes by quite a bit.
(3) 50 to 100% more launches for outfitted services. A large portion of commercial launches go unused, and outfitters say there is not enough flexibility in scheduling launches. Outfitters have a total of 2 launches per day, but are free to trade launches among themselves.
(4) Larger group sizes than the current 12 (which includes guides) (a number supported by the BLM's campsite survey) because commercial vans carry 15 passengers.
(5) To change their permit renewals to avoid the Chaffee/Gunnison County entertainment tax which is calculated on permit term.
(6) To keep outfitter permit renewals at 5 years so they don't have to go through a re-bidding process every year.
For those unfamiliar with the Gunnison Gorge, it is a 14 mile run through a small designated wilderness downstream of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The road stops 1 mile above the Gorge at Chukkar Trail, and gear is horse packed and backpacked in from there, which does limit access. Camps are reserved at the put in: first-come, first- served. While the camps do look very used, the corridor is clean and pristine, and the whitewater is technical (up to class III-IV). Boaters and hikers use different campsites.
Private boater representatives made these points in response to outfitter proposals:
(1) Rules should be applied evenly across sectors. For example, there should be no reserving of bigger camps for commercial use only as is now being done elsewhere, is not fair to non-commercial boaters.
(2) Permits have historically led to limits on access. Non-commercial boaters are, for the most part, acting responsibly, so why impose more restrictions on their access, especially in light of commercial use allocations presently going unused?
(3) Because demand cannot be measured, the only fair way to distribute access is by having all boaters stand in the same line to reserve space on the river. They chose how they go after making their reservation. A new paradigm for access is needed-it is unfair and unrealistic to limit non-commercial boating when 35% to 50% of commercial launches have gone unused in each of the last 9 years.
Karen Tucker, BLM Gunnison Gorge Manager, is spearheading a truly impressive effort to include all stakeholders and all points of view. If it is humanly possible, the result will be a finely crafted plan that protects the resource and truly reflects the public's wishes on recreational issues. The BLM has hired a planning contractor, Tetra Tech of Boulder, to assist with the effort.
To get more information or comment on the plan, please visit their website at www.gunnison-gorge-eis.com. Comments need to be made as soon as possible.To get more information about the area and see a great slide show of the gorge, visit http://www.co.blm.gov/ggnca. You can also contact Jo Johnson at email@example.com for more information.