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Tour boats face summer limits

By Mark Freeman
Mail Tribune
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Motorized tour-boat traffic in the middle Rogue River will remain capped at current levels, but its presence will be curtailed during some of the most popular summer rafting weekends under a new federal plan meant to guide river use near Grants Pass over the next decade.

Hellgate Excursions’ tour boats will continue ferrying as many as 19 boatloads of tourists in a day downstream of Grants Pass under the Bureau of Land Management’s long-awaited Hellgate Recreation Area Management Plan.

But the boats will be capped at just four a day and banned afternoons on the lower half of the 27-mile stretch during weekends in July and August as well as on the Fourth of July — all periods when rafters, kayakers and salmon anglers flock to the region’s cool rapids and picturesque canyons.

This is the BLM’s answer to easing historical conflicts among the rafters, anglers and tour boats all squeezed together into the recreation section of the Wild and Scenic Rogue, which is one of a handful of America’s most protected rivers sporting tour-boat traffic.

The corridor is one of the river’s most popular playlands, drawing a mix of private and commercially guided boaters and anglers that account for more than 700,000 trips a year.

"I think it’s what we have to do to manage the river well," Hellgate Excursions owner Robert Hamlyn said Friday. "I think (BLM planners) did well to take everything into consideration and still provide a way for people to see a Wild and Scenic river without being rafters or fishermen."

Simply capping the tour-boat traffic so conflicts don’t get worse was not enough for some groups keen on seeing fewer of Hamlyn’s passenger boats, which typically run more than 700 trips carrying more than 70,000 passengers annually.

Rafters and anglers have complained that the large boats push them out of river channels and throw wakes that disrupt their boating or fishing experiences.

"The motorized tour boats come at the expense of these other uses on the river, and if you lessened the tour-boat traffic you’d automatically lessen the conflicts," said Joseph Vaile, a biologist with the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, which is fighting the BLM and Forest Service over tour-boat traffic in the lower Rogue River.

"It’s definitely a way for a lot of people to see the river," Vaile said. "It’s not whether it has value. It’s the quantity and frequency of those boats on the river."

Details of the tour-boat season are in the BLM’s final environmental impact statement on the Hellgate Recreation Area. Developing the EIS began 12 years ago.

The draft EIS was completed in January 2001, and the final EIS amounts to a tweaking of the original draft after a public-comment period.

The BLM is taking comment on the study through April 21, and the final record of decision is expected in June, said Cori Cooper, leader of the BLM team that wrote the study.

Conspicuously absent from the new plan is a visitor center proposed for the outpost at Rand, where floaters launching at nearby Grave Creek get their required permits.

The agency planned to build the center and office building to house its river program. But river-users objected to such a large expansion along the river corridor that is sparsely peppered with buildings.

"The community supported expansion, but they just didn’t want to see anything new built," Cooper said. "So instead of building something new, we’ll expand the existing structure by 475 square feet."

Most of the attention in the EIS, as well as the public interest, is focused on how the agency sees the meshing of tour boats and other river-users.

The BLM has divided the Hellgate area into two chunks — the Dunn Reach and the Applegate Reach — and juggled tour-boat traffic to accommodate other users in those stretches.

The Applegate Reach, which is the upstream portion of the Hellgate area, will retain its current peak of 19 trips per day, while only eight of those will venture into the Dunn Reach daily. On weekends in July and August, only four boats will be allowed into the Dunn Reach, and they must all be out and back in the Applegate Reach by noon.

Joe Serres, co-director of the Grants Pass-based Friends of Living Oregon Waters, says not reducing the tour-boat trips could put the BLM at odds with the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which requires the agency to protect the "outstandingly remarkable values" of rafting, fishing and the fish themselves.

"Quite frankly, I think this will end up in some appeals and litigation," Serres said. "But it would be great to forge some (compromise) before litigation."

The BLM may limit trips or add other restrictions if any safety concerns or user-conflicts escalate, or if tour-boat traffic causes rafters and anglers to report growing dissatisfaction with their Hellgate experience.

"It’s a resource that can only stand a certain amount of use before you have conflict — and we’re way beyond that point," said Larry Laitner of Ashland, who is part of the Rogue watchdog group called Riverhawks.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com

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