on BLM-Managed Rivers
Summary as of July 2010
What is this case about?
It is about allowing non-profit companies that specialize in adaptive recreation to provide rafting and kayaking opportunities for people with disabilities on rivers managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). BLM has restricted access to a limited number of commercial companies in places such as Westwater Canyon of the Colorado River in eastern Utah. Colorado Discover Ability (CDA) is advocating for fair access to these public lands by asking BLM to issue permits to CDA for a reasonable number of trips for people with disabilities within BLM's existing river allocation system. Currently, BLM recognizes only two categories of boaters--private and commercial. All non-profit companies are classified by BLM as "commercial" and thus are prevented from floating through Westwater Canyon as private groups. BLM issued commercial permits to 18 outfitters in the mid-1970's. Today, such permits are impossible to obtain without having to buy out one of the 18 commercial outfitters who have been given a government-guaranteed monopoly to these public lands.
What is this case not about?
CDA's pursuit of fair access to Westwater Canyon is not about commercial outfitters and their operations in Westwater Canyon. It is about BLM's indifference to the growing demand for fair access for people with disabilities and for river outfitters who can provide them with specialty, low-cost trips though the Canyon. However, over the course of this three-year-old case, a disturbing theme has emerged. It appears that BLM consults on access to the Canyon exclusively with the existing commercial outfitters, indicating a very close relationship between BLM, which is a regulatory agency, and the commercial companies it regulates.
The Case: Fair Access to Westwater Canyon for Adaptive, Non-Profit River Outfitters
Background: Colorado Discover Ability (CDA), a licensed river outfitter, has been contracted by other adaptive organizations to take Wounded Warrior Project clients (US military veterans with disabilities) on river trips through Westwater Canyon on the Colorado River in eastern Utah since 2004. Due to archaic regulations, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) required CDA to subcontract with another licensed Utah river outfitter that had a Special Recreation Permit (SRP) for river trips through Westwater Canyon. Permits are limited and were originally issued to the 18 outfitters who owned them as of the mid-1970's. Now they can only be acquired by purchasing an existing outfitter, usually at a high price. Basically, the BLM has given 18 outfitters a monopoly on commercial access to the public lands of the Westwater Canyon and seven other popular river segments in the western US. CDA, as a non-profit corporation, is considered a commercial, for-profit business by the BLM and is not allowed to utilize the private permit system. Although BLM has been aware of the demand for fair access to Westwater Canyon by adaptive outfitters since at least 2007, it has chosen not to explore viable solutions for the adaptive outfitters.
Solution Proposed by Colorado Discover Ability
Colorado Discover Ability would like the BLM to implement a pilot program that provides a user-day allocation for access to Westwater Canyon for people with disabilities. Many non-profit organizations (typically with 501c3 tax status), which provide educational and therapeutic services to people with disabilities (typically referred to as adaptive sports organizations), do not have fair access to eight river runs managed by the BLM. These adaptive sports organizations do not qualify for private permits under current federal regulations. They gain access only by paying high fees to companies that own Special Recreation Permits.
We envision this pilot program to be similar to the pilot program established by Dinosaur National Monument thirty years ago, but limited to people with disabilities. The reason for this limitation is not because that population is served in particular by adaptive organizations. Rather, it is because the US Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, and other special populations, such as "at-risk youth," have not been given similar protection from discrimination under federal law. This limitation avoids many issues about the definition of a special population. The pilot program should be flexible enough to accommodate changing population dynamics, such that commercial river-trip participants, private river-trip participants, and disabled population river-trip participants are given fair access to a limited resource. We estimate that about 5% of the total use should be reserved for organizations that provide educational or therapeutic services to people with disabilities. If this pilot program is successful, it will serve as a model for fair access for the disabled to other restricted-access river segments managed by the BLM.There are several reasons we believe such a pilot program would provide a viable, interim option for the adaptive organizations:
The current, 18 river trip vendors in Westwater Canyon were given multi-year Special Recreation Permits (SRP) and under the BLM system there is little hope for any company to ever become the 19th vendor. We would suggest that the pilot program begin by issuing one-time, single event SRPs to adaptive sports organizations, perhaps on a lottery basis if demand exceeds capacity. The details can be worked out in consultation with interested adaptive sports organizations.
If BLM chooses to model its pilot program on the National Park Service's Dinosaur National Monument Special Populations program, CDA would like to provide a set of suggestions on how to modify and update that model to turn it into a truly viable opportunity for adaptive river outfitters and for people with disabilities that rely on them.
CDA has been encouraging the BLM to take the initiative on this issue, so far without success.
2007 - 2008
CDA applied for Special Recreation Permits (SRPs) to run trips in Westwater Canyon for wounded US military veterans who were members of a summer outdoor sports camp operated by another adaptive organization. This was all to have been done under the umbrella of the Wounded Warrior Project. BLM denied these applications based on its own regulations, which do not allow the issuance of new SRPs in Westwater Canyon. Despite CDA's very carefully considered reasoning in seeking permission to run a few trips through Westwater Canyon, the BLM Field Office in Moab continues to maintain that running these trips through a commercial river outfitter is a perfectly viable option for CDA and other groups of people with disabilities. The Moab BLM has also suggested that CDA purchase an existing commercial vendor that already has permits for these rivers, or obtain SRPs for river segments where SRPs are still available (which are remote and not attractive for rafting or kayaking and this is why SRPs there are available), or that CDA try "land-based activities" with its clients (which we are already doing).
CDA obtained use data for Westwater Canyon of the Colorado River for 1989 to 2007. The data indicated that, on average, commercial outfitters were not using about 400 user days of the allotment established in the Resource Management Plan (RMP) for this river segment. These 400 user days are equivalent to 20 overnight river trips for ten Wounded Warrior Project trips (staff is not counted in the allotment), an amount that is more than adequate for the current and foreseeable demand.
CDA again applied for a Special Recreation Permit to run Westwater Canyon with Wounded Warrior Project river trips. BLM again denied these applications based on their own regulations.
May - August 2009
CDA sent a letter to all Westwater Canyon river outfitters with a copy of its own Special Recreation Permit (SRP) application to provide a few trips through Westwater Canyon requesting their support, or at least their agreement not to object, to CDA's request for its own SRP. In most cases, SRPs are for one event, but in the case of BLM-managed Westwater Canyon, they are issued by the BLM for a lifetime. Although CDA wanted to run only four trips through Westwater Canyon, the BLM rejected outright CDA's applications for these SRPs. BLM officials hinted to us in several phone conversations that they had "consulted" with the commercial outfitters operating on those public lands and had faced heavy opposition from them about granting any permits (SRPs) to CDA. Consequently, a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request was made to all of the field offices of BLM where access to river segments by CDA was not possible. This FOIA request asked for information about total commercial allocations, actual use over the past ten years, and for documentation that BLM was abiding by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The information provided by BLM confirmed the data showing the availability of commercial user days that CDA or other similar organizations could use, if allowed to do so. BLM in Moab and Utah admitted that it did not track use by the disabled but also claimed the ADA did not apply to them. The BLM Utah State Office staff in mid-August 2009 said this was a federal case (and not a state issue) and that CDA would need to discuss the issue with the head office in Washington, DC. During this period, CDA learned that Dinosaur National Monument and Canyonlands National Park had established special-population allocations over 20 years ago and that Grand Canyon National Park had initiated administrative permits for special populations in 2006, setting precedents that the BLM, another agency within the Department of Interior, should have thought to follow.
July - August 2009
CDA contacted the Grand Junction Office of Congressman John Salazar, who agreed to write a letter to Robert Abbey, the Director of the BLM in Washington DC, asking the BLM to consider giving CDA permits to take its clients through Westwater Canyon. Director Abbey's response was that the BLM had completed an update to its Westwater Area Resource Management Plan (RMP) in 2008 and that CDA would need to abide by the regulations established in that plan. In plain English: the status quo was working just fine according to BLM's Director Abbey and no changes were going to be approved. IF CDA wanted to provide trips for people with disabilities on BLM-managed public lands, it would simply have to buy trips from the monopoly of the existing permit holders.
Letter from Congressman John Salazar to Mr. Patrick Wilkinson, Division Chief, Bureau of Land Management, July 28, 2009
September 2009 - March 2010
During this period, CDA obtained the support of the following organizations: Disabled Sports USA (www.dsusa.org); Challenge Aspen (www.challengeaspen.org); the Adaptive Sports Association of Durango (www.durangoasa.com); and, Team River Runner (www.teamriverrunner.org). CDA drafted a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Disabled Sports USA and the BLM, wherein all chapters of Disabled Sports USA, which includes over 100 adaptive sports organizations nationwide, such as CDA, Challenge Aspen, Team River Runner, and the Adaptive Sports Association, could apply for rafting permits for rivers where BLM had restricted access. CDA then convinced the Grand Junction offices of Congressman John Salazar and Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall to write a letter to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar that included the draft MOU. The Colorado delegation asked Secretary Salazar to consider the MOU approach as a short-term alternative to long-term policy changes. The response by Undersecretary Hayes of the Department of the Interior was not much different than that of Director Abbey: the current Resource Management Plan was working just fine. The letter from Undersecretary Hayes suggested contacting Helen Hankins, the Director of the Colorado State BLM, and Robert Ratcliffe, the BLM's national recreation manager.
Letter from Congressman John Salazar, Senator Mark Udall and Senator Michael Bennet to the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, January 8, 2010 (although the letter is dated January 8, 2009, it was sent January 8, 2010)
April - May 2010
As directed by Undersecretary Hayes, CDA contacted Ms. Hankins and Mr. Ratcliffe and participated in a conference call with them and with representatives of the Moab Field Office of BLM, which manages Westwater Canyon. The result was mixed: the Colorado BLM expressed interest in setting up a "pilot program" to improve access to the Gunnison River north of the Black Canyon (Gunnison Gorge NCA), but the Moab BLM has not made any attempt to improve access to Westwater Canyon. A subsequent conference call was even less encouraging. During that call, it became apparent that for the past three years BLM has not explored any options for creating fair access to Westwater Canyon for the disabled population, and BLM has implied that CDA lacks leverage in this case. At this point, CDA has had to tell its associate organizations that it is not possible for CDA to take Wounded Warriors through Westwater Canyon this year (2010) and has officially cancelled five trips scheduled for Wounded Warriors. Also during this period, Team River Runner sent a letter to the Secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs requesting their support for improved access for disabled veterans to river segments where BLM limits access to the existing commercial outfitters. CDA has also sent a letter to President Obama's Special Advisor for Public Affairs.
TRR letter to Wounded Warrior Liaison, dated April 27, 2010
CDA was instrumental in obtaining a special administrative permit from Grand Canyon National Park to take ten Wounded Warriors in kayaks and a paddle rafts on a 14-day trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. CDA provided volunteer river guides and a raft support while Team River Runner trained the veterans to paddle kayaks and rafts and provided the kayaks and safety kayakers. This permit was issued by Grand Canyon National Park on the basis of a Memorandum of Understanding with the Wounded Warrior Project . The trip ended on July 2 and was a great success. This kind of trip is currently not possible on BLM-managed rivers such as Westwater Canyon.
Given the lack of support from BLM and from the existing commercial outfitters for improved access to restricted river runs such as Westwater Canyon, it is apparent that CDA and its allies need to reach out and create a national effort to change BLM policies. Concurrent with this effort, CDA and possibly some of its allies are considering a lawsuit to force change.
- If you are a non-profit organization that provides services to special populations, this case deeply affects your access to public lands throughout BLM-managed lands. This issue applies to BLM-managed rivers in Utah, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado and New Mexico.
- Contact CDA about participating in a national grass-roots effort to change BLM policies.
- If you represent an adaptive sports organization, please send this link to your clients, volunteers and other adaptive sports organizations.
- If you have a disability or have a family member or friend with a disability, please send this link to your friends and family members.
- Changing an entrenched bureaucracy requires a large-group effort. Please get involved.
- Share your insight or an opinion on our Facebook Discussion Board.
Document last updated: July 21, 2010