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ARCHIVED  September 10, 1999

Cash flows in Colorado rivers State’s rafting businesses ride economic rapids

As Colorado’s river levels continued their seasonal drop during mid-August, rafting guides and their customers were squeezing every last drop out of a busy summer.

On a dry, sunny morning, converted school buses, hauling trailers stacked high with rafts, still rumbled up and down the canyon carved by the Cache la Poudre River. The river itself was dotted with the blue and gray boats bobbing lightly over what was left of rapids that had offered white-knuckle thrills earlier in the season.

“It’s nice to be here this late in the summer,´ said Ellen Reschbach, who had just finished an A-1 Wildwater Inc. float with three children and her sister. “We’ve done this six-or-so out of the past 10 years, but it’s always been earlier, when the river was higher and… well, scarier. This time, we got to sit back and enjoy the scenery a little more.”

Commercial river runners on two dozen navigable rivers in the state by now have had a chance to stow their boats, sit back and tally the results of a summer’s efforts. Thanks to more than half a million customers such as Reschbach and her family, their combined businesses likely will have set another record.

As growth industries go, the commercial outfitting business is one to envy. The Colorado River Outfitters Association has numbers to prove it:

* Since 1988, the economic impact of commercial rafting activity has grown at an average annual rate of 12.5 percent.

* Colorado’s river outfitting industry contributed almost $116 million to the Colorado economy, a three-fold increase from the $36 million generated in 1988.

* The Arkansas River alone, the most-rafted river in the world, in 1998 logged 250,098 user days. (A user day is defined as one person taking a commercial boat trip on a given day.)

* The Poudre, the state’s fourth most heavily used river, saw 32,271 user days during 1998.

“It’s gotten to be a bigger business, that’s for sure,´ said Tom Kleinschnitz, who runs a Grand Junction-based rafting company and serves as chairman of the state outfitters group. “A lot of people are out there trying to get a piece of the pie.”

The five companies that ferry paying passengers on Poudre River trips divvied up their shares long ago. Operating under special U.S. Forest Service use permits on the state’s only designated Wild and Scenic River, their economic fortunes are as predictable as the snowmelt in May.

Their business style is a far cry from that seen on the wild-and-wooly Arkansas, where commercial raft guides have been known to get into riverbank fist fights at congested launch points. On busy days, the Arkansas seems half water, half rubber. Sixty-two commercial rafting companies, plus thousands of private boaters, float the Arkansas each summer.

“There are way too many of us,´ said Joe Greiner, who runs Buena Vista-based Wilderness Aware Rafting. “It’s creating quite a headache for state managers, and for everybody who uses the river.”

Under contract with the Colorado River Outfitters Association, Greiner and partner Jody Werner in February completed an exhaustive economic analysis of Colorado’s rafting industry — a study that predicts rivers in the state will only become more raft-choked in the future.

But the study also measures, for the first time, the contribution that the rafting industry makes to local economies where river runners operate. Along Northern Colorado’s Front Range, Poudre float trips generated slightly more than $7.2 million in 1998.

Another $207,000 trickled in from guided trips on the North Platte River, which rises in Colorado’s North Park and flows across the border into southern Wyoming. A short season on the remote river, usually from early June to early July, stems the cash flow.

Tourists’ appetites for fast-flowing water have shot up dramatically in the past decade, and so have the number of rafting companies willing to set the table. While fewer than 50 commercial outfitters ran trips on the state’s rivers in the mid 1980s, the number has soared to 162 this year.

The businesses range in size from garage-based guide services with one or two boats to companies that have lavish fleets of whitewater craft and convoys of buses to haul them and customers to and from the river’s edge.

Depending on size and geographic reach, companies can employ anywhere from five to more than 100 workers during a summer season.

The picture that Greiner and Werner paint for the future shows that the number of user days on Colorado’s rivers will rise an average of 8.4 percent during the next four years. That means that by the summer of 2003, the number of floaters spending a day on the state’s rivers will exceed 800,000 — or four times the 1988 figure.

By late summer, the state outfitters association had not had time to consolidate summer reports from rafting-company owners. But anecdotal evidence from the riverbanks, in some cases as accurate as head counts, shows a substantial increase, at least on some of the state’s rivers.

Greiner said a photographer who diligently recorded the experiences of more than a quarter-million whitewater enthusiasts on the Arkansas River last summer is one of his barometers for the local industry’s growth.

“He said he was up 10 percent this year in the amount of film he’s using,” Greiner said. “So that’s an indicator, of sorts.”

Arkansas outfitters, with a 48 percent share of the state’s rafting market, are likely to keep the industry as a whole on the growth pace that Greiner predicts. He and CROA chairman Kleinschnitz say that the market is changing, with more people seeking shorter trips through bigger rapids. The Arkansas is well-suited to that customer base, with predictable high flows in the popular Brown’s Canyon section offering wet-and-wild half-day rides to thousands each summer.

The Arkansas, lacking any special protection status from agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service or the National Park Service, is jointly administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Colorado’s parks department.

The result is a management plan that makes the river a jumbled free-for-all on busy days.

“The decision was made with the communities and the agency people in place to make the Arkansas an ‘urban’ rafting experience,” Kleinschnitz said, “and that’s exactly what it is.”

Kleinschnitz prefers trips through the desert canyons of the Colorado, Green and Yampa rivers, where he and his guides run most of their multi-day summer trips. But his staff fields more and more inquiries from the growing number of pure thrill-seekers.

People will call and ask, ‘What kind of thrill am I going to have?'” Kleinschnitz said. “Another will get on the phone and say, ‘How far away from civilization am I going to go?’ I prefer to get the second kind of call, but I’m afraid we’re getting more and more of the first kind.”

As Colorado’s river levels continued their seasonal drop during mid-August, rafting guides and their customers were squeezing every last drop out of a busy summer.

On a dry, sunny morning, converted school buses, hauling trailers stacked high with rafts, still rumbled up and down the canyon carved by the Cache la Poudre River. The river itself was dotted with the blue and gray boats bobbing lightly over what was left of rapids that had offered white-knuckle thrills earlier in the season.

“It’s nice to be here this late in the summer,´ said Ellen Reschbach, who had just finished an A-1 Wildwater Inc.…

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