Some local Snake River tourism operators aren’t too happy about the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest’s proposal to bump the cost of river tours $5-$10 per person per trip, and some are alleging river managers have made poor use of existing funds while allowing key facilities in Hells Canyon to languish.
Hells Canyon National Recreation Area river manager Mike Ball on Tuesday, July 19, told the Free Press significant progress has been made on putting one key facility back into commission and said that the fee increase is needed in order to make progress on another.
A 60-day public opportunity to comment on the fee hike opened June 21, and open house meetings have been held in Clarkston, Wash., and Joseph Ore., as well as Riggins and Boise. About 30-35 attended the Riggins meeting July 6, and Hells Canyon National Recreation Area deputy district ranger Jake Lubera told the Free Press the federal agency “received some great comments and learned how individuals in the area used the river and their values.”
Kurt Killgore of White Bird-based Killgore Adventures told the Free Press a different story, in which for years the federal river ranger was able to keep up facilities with a mixture of his own effort and some seasonal help. Now, he said, basic work isn’t being completed.
From Pittsburg Landing west of White Bird, Killgore runs tours upstream to Hells Canyon Dam and downstream to the Salmon River confluence – a stretch covered by Wild and Scenic Rivers Act restrictions on new development. Killgore said facilities aren’t being regularly cleaned or stocked, and that some recent upkeep happened to coincide with a recent visit by elected officials.
“Management there is a train wreck,” George Hauptman of Canyon Outfitters told the Free Press Thursday, July 14. “$5 or $10 wouldn’t break anybody’s bank, but I wouldn’t give them a dime right now.”
For more than three decades, Hauptman has operated in the same stretch from the Hells Canyon mouth near Cache Creek upstream to the dam, where docks on the Oregon side of the state line had been in place and functional for 30 years but were removed due to damage by flooding in 2012.
The docks were taken out under the first phase of a decision Ball made in 2013, and in 2014, the state of Oregon helped launch the second phase of the project with a grant for survey and engineering of new docks.
On Tuesday, July 19, Ball told the Free Press the Oregon State Marine Board has awarded a second grant, and a contract is being bid for to design a fix for the boat docks.
“The dock sits on rails on the riverbank,” Ball said. “It works with a counterweight, so that the river raises and lowers the dock. When Hells Canyon Creek blew out, several feet of sediment piled up on the dock. The rail is tweaked and needs to be straightened or replaced.”
Ball said he’s anticipating the work will be done next summer.
Hauptman said the talk about the docks has gone on for years, as has talk of doing something about noxious weeds in the canyon – but there has been no visible progress on either issue.
Hauptman told the Free Press “the Forest Service has no presence in that canyon.”
Ball lamented the situation and cited the budget shortfall for keeping him from hiring the seasonal float crews that used to visit tour groups and keep facilities clean.
When Hauptman has seen federal personnel in the canyon, he said he hasn’t been impressed – that seasonal staffers and Ball lack basic knowledge about the river.
Both Ball and the outfitters acknowledged problems with the water system at Pittsburg Landing, where, according to Ball, the facility needs a new water tank and chlorinator at a potential cost of $25,000 to $30,000.
“We’ve had the DEQ [Idaho Department of Environmental Quality] tell us we can put a band-aid on it and operate this year, but that we can’t reopen it next spring without the fix,” Ball said.
Ball informed the Idaho County Commission of the proposed new fee, known as a special recreation permit fee, during the June 21 regular meeting.
“The Snake River is one of the few premier whitewater rivers, regionally, that does not already have a special recreation permit fee in place,” Ball told the Free Press July 19, adding that federal law would require 95 percent of the money to “go back to the local resource it’s collected from.”
The documentation the Wallowa-Whitman has provided in support of its proposed fee increase notes that, presently: the water system at Pittsburg Landing is sometimes unreliable, that the current float crew travels the river once or twice per month, that a Forest Service jet boat crew patrols one or two days per week, that there is limited maintenance of the three boat launches that serve the river (Hells Canyon Dam, Pittsburg Landing and Dug Bar), that fewer than half of the historic facilities receive annual maintenance, that volunteers who help keep up the historic ranches at Cache Creek and Kirkwood do not receive a stipend, and that there’s a maintenance backlog of $1,000,000.
For details on how the fee increases could be used, see http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/wallowa-whitman/specialplaces/?cid=stelprd3854592.
To comment on whether the fee should be increased and what the money ought to be used for, see the table at http://www.fs.usda.gov/detailfull/wallowa-whitman/specialplaces/?cid=fseprd481691&width=full.
The Lewiston Tribune reported July 13 that the decision will be made by the John Day-Snake River Resource Advisory Council. The Tribune also reported Idaho’s Sen. Jim Risch and Sen. Mike Crapo released a joint statement calling for “adequate public hearings” in Idaho and in Congressional committees.