(CA) Kern River Management Alert

Posted: 07/23/2001
by Jason Robertson

The USFS will accept faxed comments at 559.781.4744 through July 27th, 2001

If you've ever had the misfortune of applying for a permit to run the Forks of the Kern, you know what a royal pain the Forest Service's mismanagement of this incredible river is. Boaters finally have the chance to do something about this by seeking to move the river management into the newly established Sequoia National Monument. American Whitewater's letter (dated July 14, 2001) on the new plan and our proposal to revise the existing management system is attached below. In July 2001, American Whitewater's conservation and access staff also met with the Forest Service's Assistant Chief of Recreation Heritage and Wilderness to discuss this issue and explain our proposal.
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TO: Jim Whitfield
GSNM Team Leader
Sequoia National Forest
900 West Grand Avenue
Porterville, CA 93257

INTRODUCTION:

This letter is in response to the scoping letter (File code: 1920-2-1; 8 June 2001) concerning the proposed amendment to the Forest Land and Resource Management Plan (FLRMP) for the Sequoia National Forest.

For several years, we have had discussions with the USFS concerning problems with the existing permit system controlling whitewater paddling on the North Fork of the Kern River, from the confluence with the Little Kern River to the Johnsondale Bridge (the "Forks of the Kern" section). Since this Wild & Scenic stretch of river borders the Sequoia National Forest, we feel comments on the permit system are appropriate in response to the scoping letter.

COMMENTS:

The current USFS goals for the current permit system are the following, with commentary on each:

1. Protect the quality of the river environment.

a. Comment: The current permit system may offer some protection, by making overnight trips more difficult. Such possible benefit, however, comes at the cost of preventing optimal use of the river, and would still be obtained under our suggested modifications.

2. Maintain objectives for recreation opportunities.

a. Comment: The current Forks permit system does nothing to achieve this goal. The resources and effort would be much better spent on trail maintenance, education, etc.

b. Comment: With the current reservation system of 15 non-commercial persons per day, many slots go unused. Those who sign up generally do not release their slots if their plans change. Reservations are made far in advance, and those receiving them do not know if the flow is acceptable (neither too low nor too high) until a short time before the launch date. Group size may also change during the long interval between reservation and launch.

c. Comment: There are many days when the 15 commercial slots are not used. These include, but are probably not limited to, early season when inclement weather deters users, days of high flow above a level deemed safe by the outfitter, and days of low flow deemed impassable by rafts. Single-craft paddlers (predominantly kayaks) use the Forks section at much higher and much lower flow than do commercial outfitters (rafts).

d. Comment: Only 15 citizens are permitted to float the Forks each day, whereas no other public, non-commercial forest users in the river corridor have restricted day use.

2. Inform the public of river hazards.

a. Comment: The impact of the current system on public information is minimal at best and should be considered ineffective by any standard of measurement. See comments to #5, below.

3. Prevent wildfires.

a. Comment: Day boaters pose essentially no risk for wildfires. The risk will not increase if use levels are increased. See comments to #5, below.

4. Control sanitation problems.

a. Comment: The current system makes only minimal, ineffective, gestures towards 3-5. In general, it may be assumed that the ominous reputation of the boating challenges on the Forks is well known to prospective Forks permittees. Day boaters pose essentially no risk for wildfires. Education of campfire permit applicants is much more productive. Sanitation facilities are available at trailhead and takeout points, and signage at those locations about appropriate wilderness hygiene would probably be more effective than the permit system.

5. Compile use data.

a. Comment: It is very clear that the current permit system does not accomplish this important goal. The vast majority of day-use boaters avoid the permit system entirely. The lack of this critical data is a significant handicap for the management plan. Given the predominant private boater mode of non-compliance with the permit system, such data is not available, even if the USFS has the will and capacity to analyze it. Use data from the proposed system would be much more accurate, and USFS and volunteer efforts would be well spent on analysis.

6. Limit total use of the area prior to reaching its carrying capacity.

a. Comment: This is closely related to compiling use data. As above the total carrying capacity under the proposed system would not increase. From the experience on many other Wild & Scenic rivers, and the daunting logistics and strenuous nature of the Forks private boating experience, it is highly unlikely that the day-use carrying capacity of the Kern will be approached in the next decade.

PROPOSALS FOR IMPROVING THE PERMIT SYSTEM

1. Day Use Permits: The allocation limits of 15 private/15 commercial persons per day incorporated into the FEIS and then into the Management Plan originated in the Kern River Whitewater Floating Plan (1982). The rationale (at the time) for these limits was that all boating on the Forks section would be multi-day trips. It was widely believed that the Forks trip was close to an expedition--requiring at least three days, probably using raft support. The guidebooks of that era echoed this belief. While this was true for the majority of paddlers in the early 1980's, even then there were significant numbers of boaters who had the skills necessary to easily do single-day trips. The years since have seen major improvements in equipment and techniques, and today the vast majority of kayakers do the Forks in 4-8 hours, rarely going on an overnight trip there.

There is general agreement among the paddling community that over-night use should be carefully regulated and limited, and that the limit of 15 private persons per day (plus 15 commercial persons per day) is reasonable. Most multi-day trips last between one and three nights, so these overnight limits would lead to an maximum of 60 persons camping on the river on peak nights (assuming full quota of 30 persons per day, spending an average of 2 nights on the river). However, the limit of 15 private person-launches per day is widely perceived by the paddling community as unnecessarily restrictive, because day trips (almost all of which are single-person craft) have much less impact on the wilderness than do multi-day trips. These paddlers use no campsites, engage in limited shore activity, generate virtually no trash, consume only simple (non-cooked) meals, rarely leave fecal matter other than at the facilities provided at Lloyd Meadows, Peppermint (or other) campgrounds, or at the Johnsondale or Brush Creek take-outs. They also create no real increase in trail erosion, as the main access trail is already heavily used by stock and backpackers. As to user-user contacts, single-day users pass by any given location quickly. The predominant experience of day-use paddlers on the Forks is that other users (rafters, hikers, fishermen) act as if they enjoy the brief encounter with a kayaking group, waving and frequently conversing pleasantly.

There are other W&S rivers with unrestricted private day-use--notably the Tuolumne, Ocoee, Obed-Emory, and Chattooga. It may also be noted that currently there is much day-use currently outside the permit system, and there is little or no perceived negative impact. The majority of users state that they see virtually no other users--small numbers at most--during their trips.

1.A) Proposal: We encourage the FS to continue the policy of limiting overnight use to 15 private/15 commercial persons per day, and to consider single-day use separately. Day-use permits would be self-issued at the trailheads, by filling out a manifest form.

2. Overnight permits; noncommercial: The current system of allowing 15 persons to launch per day for overnight stay in the river corridor will be continued. With this current system, however, many slots go unused. Those who sign up generally do not release their slots if their plans change. Reservations are made far in advance, and those receiving them do not know if the flow will be acceptable (neither too low nor too high) until a short time before the launch date. Group size may also change during the long interval between reservation and launch.

2.A) Proposal: The Permittee must telephone the FS between 7 and 3 days prior to the launch date to confirm intent to use the permit, and to verify group size. This is a reasonable period to assess likely flow on launch date. If such confirmation is not received, the FS will return unconfirmed slots to a general pool for redistribution. After the 7-3 day launch confirmation period, any unconfirmed and unclaimed permits become available on a first-come basis. These permits may be claimed over the phone by individuals holding a valid annual license for Kern boating.

Permittees who confirm during the 7-3 days prior to launch and subsequently do not use the permit slots (thereby depriving others of the chance to use the slots) will be penalized in some way, to increase incentive for compliance with this policy. Possibilities might include:

i) forfeiture of the right to reserve next year

ii) forfeiture of the right to claim permits during the remainder of current season

iii) other

3. Overnight permits; commercial: There are many days when the 15 commercial slots are not used. These include, but are probably not limited to, early season when inclement weather deters users, days of high flow above a level deemed safe by the outfitter, and days of low flow deemed impassable by rafts. Single-craft paddlers (predominantly kayaks) use the Forks section at much higher and much lower flow than do commercial outfitters (using rafts).

3.A) Proposal: At some time (to be agreed upon by commercial outfitters) prior to the launch date, the outfitter with the permit for that date will notify the FS of the maximum use planned for that date, releasing unused slots into the general pool to be made available to private users, as described above.

4. Data collection: The current system does not accurately collect information on river use or demand, because the majority of use is single day use avoiding the permit system.

4.A) Proposal: The changes proposed above allow greater use of available permits, and also provide an accurate record of use. There may still be boaters who paddle the Forks without a permit, but that group will diminish with a more user-friendly system.

5. Data collection; trail access: The current management plan identifies the Forks put-in site as the confluence of the Little Kern and the North Fork of the Kern, accessed by the Lloyd Meadows trail. Many day-use paddlers prefer to put-in at other sites, using established trails such as the Durrwood and Peppermint Creek trails. A small number of paddlers hike up the river-left trail from Johnsondale Bridge to Four Mile Rapid (this is done for river access prior to the springtime opening of the road to Lloyd Meadows). Other paddlers put-in on Dry Meadow Creek and gain access to the Kern by paddling down, then continuing to Johnsondale Bridge.

5.A) Proposal: The self-issued permits for day-use paddling will be located at all the pertinent trail heads, above. In this way, more accurate data on river use and impact will be generated.

Sincerely,

{SIGNED}

Jason Robertson
Access Director;
American Whitewater

Keith Beck
Regional Coordinator; American Whitewater
Kern River Private Boaters

Jason Robertson
635 Joseph Cir
Golden, CO 80403-2349


Associated Projects

Kern River (CA)
American Whitewater's history on the Kern River.

Associated Rivers