Solving River Conflicts
21st Century Approaches to Preserving Quality Experiences on the Water
Data from numerous blue ribbon trout streams across the West suggests that fish are no smaller or less plentiful than they were several decades ago. In some cases, there are more trout and the size ratio is healthier. Fish may have been easier to catch back then, but our tackle and techniques have improved. Fly fishers who have similarly evolved can hook into just as many as anglers did several decades ago.
But less crowded streams? That’s another issue. Tales of angler-driven congestion abound these days: 80 driftboat launches in three hours on Section A of the Green River; 120 boat trailers parked at Three Dollar Bridge on the Madison; two or more rods to a riffle on the Provo. Many of us have seen it. Almost all of us have heard about it. There are signs that the coming years will not be any better.
Social media, films, magazines, and online publications tout seldom-fished waters and high fish numbers on prized streams. I am as much to blame as anyone. Going hand in hand with this media blitz is that fly fishing might be growing right now after several years of stagnation or decline.
But these are just the angler-driven causes. Increasingly, trout streams in the West are plied by a multitude of other river enthusiasts including rafters, kayakers, and stand-up paddleboarders (SUPs). This is not occurring only on popular urban fly water like Idaho’s Boise River and the Clark Fork (flowing through Missoula, Montana). It is also happening in quaint resort destinations that previously focused on fly fishing.
Congested streams do not just take away from a quality experience. There are impacts on wildlife and riparian ecosystems. It can tax facilities at launches and the roads used to access them. All of this creates tension among users. Arguments coming to fisticuffs are not unheard of. To minimize these outcomes, a variety of stakeholders are coming together to solve conflicts on streams where multiple use is firmly established.
Anglers vs. other Users
Angler-angler conflict resolution is well documented. Previous management efforts on Montana’s Madison, Beaverhead, and Big Hole rivers are often heralded as effective historic examples. They involved the public, commercial entities, nonprofits, and management agencies. Resolving congestion issues on these streams was difficult and time-consuming. Outcomes have not necessarily been 100 percent successful due to the number of stakeholders. Most involved, however, agree that the plans established are at least a good first step, if not an outright good result.
Solving conflicts where fly fishers are just one user group is a different animal. All of us desire less traffic and a better experience on the water, yet not all are using a stream in the same manner. A fly fisher may park a drift boat on a choice riffle that must be floated over by a scenic rafter or SUP to avoid downstream obstacles. That same fly fisher might need to navigate directly over a whitewater feature being used by kayakers.
A wading angler might make a long hike to fish a productive side channel, only to find it occupied by drift boats or perhaps a novice paddleboarder attempting to practice in easier water. Generational differences also exist. Those who have fished a river for decades often consider congestion levels differently than those who have only been on it for a few years. All of this creates tension.
But some plans have been credited with stemming congestion and the problems it brings on multiple-use streams. Oregon’s Deschutes River and the Smith in Montana are often heralded as successful models. Not every group got everything they wanted in these cases and they are far from perfect. Nevertheless, addressing conflicts on rivers like these is becoming increasingly important because they are occurring more and more with each passing year.
And not all rivers are the same. No matter the specific traits of a river, success depends on a partnership with a wide swath of stakeholders. These partnerships typically involve those plying the river on a regular basis, local advocacy groups, and a facilitator who will act as a management entity or assist in establishing a management agreement.
Resort Town Dilemmas
Small Western communities are interesting cases. The population base, often in the tens of thousands, would not seem large enough to create noticeable congestion and the conflicts it brings. But some are popular vacation destinations drawing hundreds of thousands to millions of visitors during the summer months. Many of them are looking for at least one day on the river during their vacation.
These resort towns also draw younger residents seeking an active outdoor lifestyle in the new place they call home. Skiing, climbing, and mountain biking are popular pursuits. So is time on the water fishing, kayaking, paddleboarding, or just taking in the scenery and the wildlife.
Jackson, Wyoming is a prime example of how resort communities address multi-use river conflicts. Over 3.5 million visitors hit the vast swath of nearby public lands each summer for a variety of pursuits. A good number of them are looking for fun on the Snake River, which bisects the valley. Fishing, whitewater trips, and scenic floats are the most common activities. The river is by no means a free-for-all. Much of the commercial outfitting occurs within Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) in the northern tier of the valley, and in Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF) to the south. Both agencies maintain a strict permitting system. This helps keep commercial traffic at a desirable level.
Squeezed between the park and the national forest is a 13-mile reach of the Snake that, while managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), has historically been unpermitted. This made it popular with independent guides. Permitted outfitters used it on overflow days when space in BTNF and GTNP was exhausted. Both were equally drawn to its high fish count and average size of trout. It is also popular with local river enthusiasts due to its close proximity to valley communities, wildlife abundance, and stunning landscape.
In the early 1990s, an average day on this section of stream might see a dozen or so watercraft. Stimulated by a growing community and surging tourism industry, traffic has grown dramatically with each passing year. By 2009, 90+ boats—scenic rafts, kayaks, SUPs, and drift boats—was a regular occurrence. Limited parking, long wait times at the put-in, and a dilapidated ramp were constant sources of hostility among those wanting to access the stream. Things were no longer tranquil on the water, or at the takeout downstream.
Things reached such a boiling point with congestion and stressed facilities that the BLM threatened to close its Snake River parcels altogether. This spurred action by commercial interests, local river advocacy groups, and the public to find a solution. Access was the unifying issue, but they also wanted to address the causal problem—high usage rates. Both required a managing entity.
This reach of river was out of the jurisdiction of other federal agencies. Few could envision federal entities like GTNP or BTNF expanding their scope of influence in a “local rights” state like Wyoming. County involvement, however, was viewed differently. Local control has support across a wide spectrum of political views in this part of the Rocky Mountain West.
Teton County, through which most of the river flows, was already involved with certain parcels of land along the stream corridor. With the assistance of the Snake River Fund, BLM authority for this reach of stream was effectively transferred to Teton County. Transfer of other parcels on the Snake continues to this day. A referendum supported by many area nonprofits called for a Special Purpose Excise Tax to pay for much needed improvements to existing facilities. It passed overwhelmingly in the 2010 election.
The transfer, although costly and time-consuming, was the easy part. Management would be more difficult. With input from the community, the resulting Snake River Management Plan called for a permit fee system that would greatly limit the group most identified with increased traffic over a 12-year period—commercial outfitters. Despite their impact on employment and the local economy, this stakeholder group agreed to bear the full burden of reducing congestion.
All scenic and fishing outfitters were reduced to fewer than half their original launches. Smaller, newer companies that were not defined as historical users could only draw from a first-come, first-served allotment pool that did not guarantee space on any given day. This rendered many of them financially not viable unless guides were willing to drive an hour or more to unpermitted water in other drainages. Some are doing just that.
The management plan went into effect in 2015. Fees collected from the permit system are used to maintain facilities and fund county staff involved with supervising the accesses.
Almost 10 years later, not all the tax funding from the 2010 election has been spent on the much-needed maintenance of the earthen boat ramp. The expanded parking area is yet to be completed. Nonetheless, almost all who use these sites agree the management plan is working. While river traffic will never be reduced to pre-2000 levels, congestion on the river has been noticeably reduced.
The Teton River
Less than 30 miles to the west, another stream in Idaho is just beginning to deal with conflict issues. The Teton River is framed by its namesake mountain range to the east and smaller ranges to the west and south. Like the Snake, there has been a dramatic increase in traffic driven by a burgeoning tourism economy and a growing community that values recreation opportunities and an outdoor lifestyle. While the Teton was originally the sole realm of fly fishers, other users—canoes, kayaks, and SUPs—now make up just as much or more of a never-ending flotilla most days during the summer.
Outfitters, guides, and others in the valley began raising alarm about substantial traffic increases in 2014. Most complaints have been directed at Friends of the Teton River and the Teton Regional Land Trust, both local nonprofits most involved in issues of access and conservation on the stream and its tributaries. Worries range from safety and etiquette to crowded launch sites and impacts on wildlife. But the driving worry has always been the loss of quiet solitude.
The first steps to address conflicts on the Teton occurred in the summer of 2018 when Friends of the Teton River invited Stephanie Horne, a graduate student at University of Montana’s Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy, to study the issue. Her findings suggest that, while some in the community are adamantly opposed to any management (a sentiment echoed in many communities in a state with a reputation for fierce independence), there is a strong desire for relieving congestion-driven conflicts across a wide array of stakeholder groups.
Who will be tasked with management and what form it will take remains to be seen. The Idaho Guide and Outfitter Licensing Board regulates commercial use, but they only have control of outfitters. The general public has unlimited access to the stream. This makes controlling traffic a bit trickier than on other streams where commercial activity dominates.
Any form of regulation will be difficult in this community of 12,000. And it will take time. Teton County, Idaho (not to be confused with Wyoming’s Teton County just over the border), is in flux politically and socially. A traditionally conservative community with a suspicion of outside regulation, changing demographics, and a diversifying economy are propelling it in a progressive direction. Even so, it is not quite at the point where the majority of the community is willing to trust an outside entity to fix the problem.
As with the Snake River, the management entity that will ruffle the fewest feathers is the county. Others have suggested creating a stakeholders’ commission with authority granted jointly by Teton County and the Idaho Fish and Game, the latter of which maintains a number of the access sites.
Whatever direction the public takes, a successful plan will hinge on several factors. Tapping into lessons from other rivers, Horne suggests establishing a vision statement based on public input, and creating a plan that has clearly defined measurements and objectives. She also recommends conducting a recreational use capacity analysis to gauge what the river and its facilities can handle, and developing a means to address unregulated commercial activities such as guided kayak and SUP excursions. Lastly, she advises being timely with the planning process. Doing so, Horne says, maintains community support and the likelihood of success. These steps have worked on rivers throughout the country, and will probably work everywhere.
*Boots Allen is a fly-fishing guide and writer who lives with his wife and two kids in Victor, Idaho. His latest book is Finding Trout in All Conditions.