Want to float one of the West’s most popular rivers? You have roughly a 2% chance of getting a permit.

Nearly 60,000 people applied to raft the West’s four most popular rivers in 2022. The boating community says the federal government’s process to administer permits is broken.

Tracy Ross
The Colorado Sun
Boaters pine for solitude like this. It’s getting harder and harder to come by.
Tracy Ross/The Colorado Sun

Every winter until a few years ago, Nicole Silk could practically guarantee she would spend at least one week of her spring, summer or fall blissing out on a raft on a pristine wilderness river. 

There was no reason for her to believe otherwise — that’s how it had been for as long as she’d been a private boater. Each year from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s, she and her most trusted river friends would pay $6 each to submit an application for a permit that would allow them to raft one of the West’s nine most coveted rivers. 

They’d all have kept their summer calendars open, believing someone would score a permit on the Green, the San Juan, the Middle Fork or the Yampa, for example. Almost without fail, someone would, and the group would start planning their vacations. On their launch date, they’d row their kids, boats, camping supplies and, sometimes, dogs down an artery threading through the landscape, where they could disengage from the worries of their domestic lives and re-engage with friends, families and themselves. 

But the days of private boaters counting on scoring yearly permits are over, confirmed by statistics released by Recreation One Stop, or, the federal interagency outdoor-adventure-reservation booking system, for seasons 2022 and 2023. 

Data released by the U.S. Forest Service shows applications for Idaho’s so-called Four River’s permit system nearly tripling since 2010. Similar increases are occurring on all of the west’s permitted rivers. (Provided by U.S. Forest Service)

Kevin Colburn, the national stewardship director of American Whitewater, called the data “stunning.” In 2022, applications for permits on four of the West’s most sought-after rivers — Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon, the Main Salmon, the Selway and the Snake River through Hells Canyon, known together as the “Four Rivers” — surpassed 60,000 for a total of 1,054 permits. That’s a 300% increase over applications in 2012. 

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