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River Permit Survey Results Preview

Posted: 07/12/2023
By: Kelsey Phillips

Back in December of 2022, American Whitewater shared a survey to gather paddlers’ opinions on the permit systems that are used to manage use on multi-day river trips. This survey was designed to investigate both satisfaction with, and preference for various permitting systems in the U.S., as well as specific attitudes towards these systems. A huge number, 1,261 paddlers, were able to fully respond to the survey, answering both general questions regarding permitting systems as well as specific questions about a river of their choice. While a full write-up of these results will be presented in an upcoming American Whitewater Journal, some of the topline results are presented here.

River recreation managers began to allocate use in the form of permits in the early 1970s on several Western rivers. While many of these permit systems were created using the best information available at that given time, use levels and patterns have potentially changed since many of these systems were implemented, some of which were put in place decades ago. The chances of acquiring a permit under the use levels that existed during the time of a system’s initial implementation may be drastically lower under modern use levels, depending on the river and timeframe. With more rivers and other recreational opportunities being permitted in the U.S., an updated look at the public’s perspective on these systems is needed to better inform river management agencies on a permit system’s efficacy. 

Of the 1,261 survey respondents, the majority (60%) have won no permits themselves in the past two years. Across all rivers included in this survey, 71% of respondents found that the chances of securing a permit on the river they most want to run were not acceptable. The lottery system with the lowest levels of dissatisfaction is a weighted one; 34% of those who have entered the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon’s cancellation lottery were somewhat or very dissatisfied with the lottery, versus the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho, where 69% of those who have entered were somewhat or very dissatisfied. When asked about their most preferred method for awarding permits, a weighted lottery by number of failed attempts was the favorite at 56%, in contrast to the alternatives: a lottery weighted by number of years not on a river (25%), a lottery with equal odds (10%), a first-come, first-served system (5%), and a waitlist (4%). 

Respondents were asked specific questions about the Selway River in Idaho, which has a unique allocation system of one launch per day during the control season, rationed via the Four Rivers Lottery. When asked about crowding perception, 53% of respondents that have run the Selway previously had “fewer than acceptable” encounters with other boaters on their trips, with 44% having an “acceptable range” of encounters and 3% having “more than acceptable” encounters. When asked whether the Selway should double launches to two per day, most supported doubling (63%), but there was less enthusiasm among those with experience on the Selway. 

A number of questions regarding attitudes and general provisions were asked (with the option to elect “I don’t know”), with some eliciting strong agreement and some questions garnering more disagreement. 93% of respondents favored prohibiting no-shows from applying the following year (3% opposed), and 93% of respondents agreed that permit systems should prohibit people from using scripts or bots to obtain permits (4% disagreed). 85% of respondents agreed that there is a major problem with permit systems in that it is possible to never get a permit (7% disagreed). Alternatively, 75% of respondents disagreed that agencies should relax limits and issue more permits as the number of applications increases (9% agreed). 

While only a small subset of the permit survey results is discussed here, these responses indicate that amongst this sample of paddlers there is faith in the user-capacity determination but concerns about the allocation of these use opportunities. River management agencies are given guidance for setting user capacities, but ultimately how a permit system is designed and implemented requires best judgment and has direct effects on paddlers. Many of these systems were put in place decades ago, therefore it makes sense to revisit them as places, values, and uses have changed over time. These survey results are an important step towards better understanding how equitably these permitting systems serve the public. Stay tuned for the full report in an upcoming American Whitewater Journal. 


Evan Stafford

Fort Collins, CO 80524

Phone: 970-420-5378
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