Sharing the Rivers: Managing and Minimizing Recreational User Conflicts

Share The River Recommendations

Interacting with Local Residents and Other River Access Users

American Whitewater asks paddlers to use the following common sense guidelines when traveling to and using river access areas:

  • Drive courteously and within the speed limit. Paddlers should always remember that they have large neon signs on the tops of their vehicles that let everyone know that they are boaters. Thus, paddlers have a responsibility to be good ambassadors for the paddling community while driving in their cars. Good driving etiquette, particularly in residential areas, is essential for maintaining positive relationships with those that live near paddling destinations.
  • Park in designated areas making sure to not block driveways or interfere with traffic.
  • Change clothes discretely.
  • Do not play loud music.
  • Follow the laws and rules of the area that you are using.
  • Consider taking a few minutes to pick up litter left by others.

Interacting with Anglers

American Whitewater asks paddlers to use the following guidelines when paddling past any angler, based on input from the angling community:

  • Stay in the main flow whenever possible while paddling past anglers or while paddling in heavily fished waters. Anglers generally work their way upstream while fishing so engage in this behavior as soon as you see a downstream angler.
  • Paddle past areas that are being fished consistently with minimal splashing. Fish can be disturbed by noise and surface activity.
  • Avoid shouting or being loud. Anglers and other backcountry recreationists generally appreciate quiet interactions with other recreational users. Voices carry well over water, so avoid shouting when in the presence of other recreationists unless necessary for safety reasons.
  • Avoid startling anglers. When possible, pass anglers in on a highly visible path down the river and make eye contact with the angler as far upstream as possible. When in heavily fished waters or narrow blind streams, act as if an angler is around every bend. Fly Fishermen generally cast upstream so this consideration is often easily accomplished.
  • Don't approach casting anglers. This should be obvious, but if you want to say hi or do a little PR for boaters, simply smile and nod.

NOTE: if any member of the angling community has additional suggestions for this list please email me at Kevin@amwhitewater.org

Interacting with Horses and Horseback riders

American Whitewater asks that paddlers encountering horses while carrying or dragging boats on a trail follow these general guidelines:

  • Give the right of way to the horse
  • Move slowly off the trail
  • If on a slope, move off the trail to the downhill side if possible
  • Talk to the rider and horses to comfort horses
  • Lay your boat on the ground
  • When in doubt, just ask the rider/packer what they would like you to do

NOTE: if any member of the horseback riding or horse packing community has additional suggestions for this list please email me at Kevin@amwhitewater.org

Interacting with other boaters

  • At put-ins and take-outs behave in a friendly, positive manner toward others and be helpful to those who might need assistance. Be mindful of the time that you are spending occupying the launch or take-out area so that you do not unfairly restrict opportunities for others.
  • Allow for spacing up and downstream of others, particularly in a rapid, and seek to avoid collisions. Colliding boaters should not leave the scene without checking with the other paddlers and making sure that they are unhurt. Do not take any action that escalates conflict.
  • When entering a rapid, the upstream craft has the right of way. Those entering the current should yield to those already in it. Never cut in front of an oncoming boat.
  • When exiting the current, avoid eddies that are full, if possible, and take care when entering occupied eddies. Exit an eddy when you see approaching boats, to facilitate your safe exit and entry, respectively.
  • When playing, avoid blocking navigation by yielding to oncoming, upstream craft. Exit a play spot after a reasonable time to allow someone else to use it.
  • Always provide assistance to others who are in trouble or who are injured. Provide whatever assistance you are qualified to give or help them in obtaining assistance.
  • When traveling on rivers and camping overnight, consult with other groups on the water about their stopping and camping intentions, and strive to cooperate by spreading out among desirable locations. Do not invade another parties' campsite: If darkness, emergency or other factors require you to set a camp close to others, always explain the situation and attempt to gain their understanding while respecting their privacy.

The Science and Management of User Conflict

There are an ever increasing number and diversity of outdoor enthusiasts pursuing their preferred activities across the country. Likewise, there is an increasing number and diversity of interactions between these users and user groups. The vast majority of these interactions will have neutral or positive effects on an individual user's experience, but occasionally an individual will experience a negative reaction to interactions or to the mere idea of interactions. These latter instances are referred to as user conflicts, and can lead to management decisions that directly impact the freedom of recreationists to choose where, when, and how to recreate.

Many, if not most user conflicts are personality based rather than based on anything that can or should be managed for. In other words, some people are just negative, angry, greedy, selfish, egocentric, prejudiced or otherwise upset and will therefore constantly be in conflict with themselves, the world, and yes: other recreationists. You will encounter these people in river stewardship projects and almost all public processes. Often times these people are the loudest voices in the room, the most prolific writers and the most capable of rallying support by spreading rhetoric. These people are highly opposed to changing their positions, and are often a lost cause in negotiations. When negotiating in a proceeding that involves such individuals it is best to rationally and calmly show the errors of their view while they quickly alienate themselves from the other stakeholders by being disrespectful and irrational. Ask the individual to document their convictions through scientifically defensible surveys. Alternatively, request the agencies conduct a scientifically defensible survey of users to verify if conflicts exist. Regardless, most research done on user conflicts overlook these “squeaky wheels” and deals with more “normal” individuals and with big-picture concepts. While recognizing that you may encounter “squeaky wheels”, understanding these general concepts can help ease tensions and resolve many user conflicts.

First, it should be understood that user conflicts do not mean fights, although fights would certainly be a drastic example of user conflicts. There are essentially two different types of user conflicts, those that are perceived conflicts based on differing values (social values conflict), and those that are physical conflicts which limit one or both recreationist's ability to meet his or her goals (goal interference or interpersonal conflict).

Social value conflict can arise between groups that do not share the same norms or values, independent of the physical presence or contact between the groups. Social values conflict is often driven by stereotypes, misunderstanding, intolerance and occasionally prejudice. One vocal individual can instigate social values conflict within a group. Often one group dislikes another while the other is neutral about the first group. This is known as asymmetrical antipathy. An example of social values conflict can be seen in the following comment by a Chattooga River angler: “Obviously they [boaters] just don't understand backcountry anglers…and our low tolerance for encounters with others with different beliefs.” This individual states that his conflict is based on a perceived difference in beliefs, rather than any problems associated with physical interaction. In summary; if a conflict is values based, or as one researcher notes “if people do not observe an event, but believe a problem situation exists”, then the conflict is a social values conflict.

Goal interference or interpersonal conflict can be defined as the presence of an individual or group interfering with the experiential goals of another individual or group. An example of interpersonal conflict would be if a meditation club and a motocross club began using the same area during the same times. In this case the motocross riders would interfere with the goals of the meditation club. Sometimes interpersonal conflict occurs when the sheer number of interactions with users exceeds personal limits of acceptability, regardless of the nature of those interactions. An example would be if you were to go hiking in a wilderness area seeking solitude and time alone and saw so many other hikers that your goals were not met by your experience. Obviously, interpersonal conflict is very complex, as many studies have shown.

The proper management of these very different types of conflict may best be summed up in the following statement in a peer reviewed journal article:

“Understanding these sources of conflict (interpersonal conflict versus conflicts in social values) is important for natural resource managers because the solution to the conflict depends on the cause of the problem. Zoning, for example, may reduce conflicts stemming from interpersonal conflict because the user groups are physically separated. On the other hand, zoning is likely to be ineffective when conflicting values are involved (Ivy, et al., 19921), Owens, 19852)). Because social interaction is not necessary for this type of conflict to occur, physically separating users will have little influence. In these situations, education may be more effective.”3)

Social values conflicts can and should be managed using education. It is wrong to limit one group's personal freedoms in the outdoors simply because another group dislikes them based on stereotypes, prejudice, and intolerance. Researchers have found that people are less likely to experience anger if they are aware of the roots of the behavior that would have otherwise angered or frustrated them.4) Accordingly, experts suggest that “interpretive efforts that help users to understand the behaviors, motivations, and land use needs of other user groups may reduce perceptions of conflict.”5) The same experts also state that “while it is obviously necessary to establish some behavioral protocols, it may be equally necessary to promote understanding and acceptance for the needs and motives of different user groups. If these educational efforts emphasize that different user groups have many similarities, especially regarding relationship to setting, perhaps fewer biased evaluations will occur… An emphasis on understanding and acceptance, if successful, would help to redefine the social situation in outdoor recreation settings. At present, other user groups are often viewed by recreationists as a source of interference and competition. By emphasizing tolerance in our interpretive efforts, we may encourage the people in different user groups to see each other simply as fellow travelers in the outdoors.” 6)

Goal interference or interpersonal conflict is most often managed in a manner that reduces the type or number of interactions through zoning or permits, or in a manner that lowers expectations of the user groups through education. Zoning is an example of a direct method of limiting or controlling use. Indirect methods of limiting or controlling use include education, limiting access through parking, limiting stocking of fish and promoting alternatives. The USFS policy, and a good general rule, is that all indirect methods should be exhausted before direct methods are undertaken, and that if zoning or permits must be implemented that it is done so in a manner that provides equal opportunity for all potential users to access the resource.

American Whitewater's access efforts on public lands have been based on the premise that whitewater paddling is a responsible very low impact non-motorized use of public lands requiring virtually no infrastructure or active management, and that paddlers generally are American citizens that have a solid environmental ethic, strong self rescue skills, a deep sense of place, and a high tolerance for others sharing the rivers we paddle. Based on this premise, we feel that paddlers should have equal rights and equal access when compared to other comparable non-motorized users. We also feel that open dialog and education can resolve most user conflicts and potential user conflicts, and that public resources must be shared, rather than divided up among “competing” uses. Most importantly, we feel that paddling does not interfere with the goals of any other user group, and that we as a user group do not dislike any other user group based on their values.

American Whitewater's discussion of user conflicts in our appeal of a USFS decision to ban paddling on the Chattooga River to benefit anglers provides a strong scientific discussion of user conflicts and draws on a large collection of peer reviewed scientific articles focused on the topic.

While we cannot control the reactions other recreational users have to our presence, we can seek to interact with other user groups in a positive or neutral manner. Often, common courtesy is enough to make most or all interactions positive or neutral but it helps to understand other users and their preferences to interact with them in a manner that does not disturb them. Please refer to our Share the River Recommendations (above) to learn how to interact with other users in those users' preferred way.


1) Ivy, M.I., Stewart, W.P., and Lue, C. (1992). Exploring the Role of Tolerance in Recreational Conflict. Journal of Leisure Research. 24. 348-360.
2) Owens, P.L. (1985). Conflict as a social interaction process in environmental and behavior research: The example of leisure and recreation research. Journal of Environmental Psychology. Vol. 5. 241-259.
3) Vaske, J.J., Donnely, M.P., Wittman, K., and Laidlaw, S. (1995). Interpersonal Versus Social-Values Conflict. Leisure Sciences, 17, 205-222.
4) Dyck and Rule, 1978 as cited in Ramthun, R. 1995. Factors in User Group Conflict Between Hikers and Mountain Bikers. 159-169.
5) , 6) Ramthun, R. 1995. Factors in User Group Conflict Between Hikers and Mountain Bikers. 159-169.