Rafting proposition smells of politics | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Rafting proposition smells of politics

Rick Chandler

Looking for a little outdoors excitement? Well, river rafting in El Dorado County has never been fraught with more spills and excitement than it has during this election season.

Only one thing is certain: Voters should hold on for dear life.

Call it The River Wild. Proponents of Ballot Measure W have taken aim at commercial rafting outfitters in El Dorado County, seeking to limit by half the number of rafters on the south fork of the American River. Supporters of the measure contend that the 100,000 people who raft down the river every year are ruining water quality and damaging wildlife. Opponents contend that the measure is a mean-spirited payback campaign to punish commercial outfitters – one that would ruin businesses and damage the local economy.

The question is, who can best float their argument with voters on Nov. 3?

“I’ve seen a lot in this business, but this thing baffles me,” said Corky Collier, owner of Chili Bar Outfitter Tours in Placerville and chairman of the River Management Advisory Committee. “Presumably this measure is supposed to protect the environment. But is there a problem with river quality caused by rafters? Show me. Problems are not caused by us. We do more to watchdog the river than anyone.”

Not so, says Placerville mayor Trent Saxton, who is a leading proponent of the measure.

“They (the outfitters) are being forced to look into the mirror, and they don’t like what they see,” said the longtime Placerville resident, who lives “five minutes away” from the American.

“They say they don’t have an impact, but what about their vans and buses that leak sewage into the river? What about the cans and bottles left by rafters? What about the fish that are trying to spawn? You don’t call that an impact?

“I’ve fished the river for 19 years, and it’s just not the habitat it used to be. Some fish species have been decimated.”

Said Collier: “If these people suddenly want to join the Sierra Club, I’m sure they would be happy to accept the applications. It’s funny how all of a sudden these developers and businessmen have become environmentalists. As for impact, more people visit the Apple Inn every year than float down the American River.”

Measure W, titled The El Dorado County Streams and Rivers Preservation Act, was authored by Fourth District Supervisor Walter Shultz and approved by the County Board of Supervisors by a 3-2 vote.

That means the issue will be presented to voters in the Nov. 3 general election, and both sides are mobilizing for all-out war.

Please fasten life jackets securely.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist on this one,” said First District Supervisor Sam Bradley, who voted against the measure (along with Second District Supervisor Ray Nutting). “This is nothing but payback on a base level. It’s cheap politics.

“This measure isn’t meant to save anything; it’s meant to destroy. They want to save the river, yeah … so they can build homes on it.”

Bradley contends that Measure W has its roots in the election that ousted Shultz from his supervisor’s seat and replaced him with Penny Humphries, who takes office in January. Rafting outfitters supported Humphries, and many contend that Shultz is trying to sink the rafters in retaliation.

“Walt is willing to destroy an industry just to get even,” Bradley said. “It makes me mad. But what really infuriates me is that they (the Measure W proponents) are hiding behind the environmental shield. These guys are about as environmental as an oil slick.”

Adding to the confusion, El Dorado County paid $440,000 on a three-year American River Management Study which is nearly finished, but is now practically useless due to Measure W.

“They are throwing that study out the window before it even comes out,” said Mike Miltner, owner of Tahoe Whitewater Tours in Tahoe City. “What are they afraid of? They’re afraid that the report will say that rafters have no effect on the environment. So Shultz pushes this through.”

Said Dan Buckley, owner of Tributary Tours in Grass Valley: “Shultz found out that the report’s findings were not to his liking, so he found a way to get rid of it. It’s ‘The King and I.’ Shultz says we can do whatever we want, but he has the final say. It’s sad when an outgoing supervisor can sabotage the entire process.”

Shultz was out of town “on a personal matter,” according to his office, and could not be reached for comment.

Buckley contends that Measure W would actually do more harm to the American.

“The measure puts a cap on the number of (rafting) trips in a given year,” he said. “Currently, we’re required to report our numbers on a monthly basis. So it would be smart for me to fit in more trips over a shorter period of time to stay under the cap. Then I would shut down for the remaining months and save on overhead. The river will really get crowded then.”

Rafting outfitters are currently required to pay for a permit from the county, and pay a fee according to numbers of rafters.

“This is an industry that averages a five percent net profit,” Collier said. “It’s not like we’re getting rich.”

“You have to have an environmental conscience to be in this business,” Buckley said. “You hurt the environment by hurting the river rafting community.

“I’m sure Walt Shultz and his developer friends lump us with environmentalists and blame us for less logging, less mining, less hydroelectric power and so on. This is a payback.”

Proponents such as Saxton disagree.

“This is not about payback, this is about water quality,” he said. “We’re talking about the sixth-busiest river in the nation. More people use the American than the Colorado or the Snake rivers. It’s up to us to ensure that we are accountable for its use.”

But Miltner, owner of the biggest rafting outfitter in the Tahoe Basin, sees a huge blow to the local economy.

“One reason tourists visit Tahoe is that they look on the Internet and see that they can do this (rafting),” he said. “Now we’re facing the prospect of being punished for being in business. Some of us won’t make it.”

Recently, the South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors unanimously voted to oppose the measure, as have groups such as Friends of the River and the American River Conservancy.

“But they don’t know the whole story,” said Saxton. “Twice our population goes down that river every year, and they (Measure W opponents) are using them as fodder for their own personal interests. They have the empathy vote, but this fight is not over.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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