Unlimited rafting poses a threat to aquatic wildlife

By Mike Mitchell

Editor’s note: Legislation to greatly expand the rights of people rafting on Colorado Rivers and streams was introduced in the Legislature early this year by Rep. Kathleen Curry, I-Gunnison. It passed the House, but the Senate revamped it entirely to require a study of rafting rules over the next year. That version was sent back to the House, which rejected it. A conference committee is required to reach a compromise before any version of the bill can move forward, which is unlikely to occur with only a week left in this year’s legislative session.

The recent debate over Colorado House Bill 1188, legislation pitting floaters rights against landowners’ rights, misses the real issue that should concern everyone who values the state’s environment — the degradation of Colorado’s river and stream habitats.

An uncontrolled right to float rivers in Colorado should not be confused with sustainable use. Allowing Colorado rivers and streams to be degraded is unacceptable and that impact should be the focus of the debate over where, when and how floating should be permitted.

The sustainability of one of Colorado’s most sensitive natural resources, our waterways, is being pitted against the demand for recreation and commerce. Floating, while it may seem to be non-consumptive, has impacts on the habitats where it occurs. There is bank damage at put-in and take-out site. There are toilets next to rivers. There are bank-side parking lots, trails along rivers, overfishing and trash to name just a few. These impacts add up, resulting in real biological consequences.

The impact is not limited to fish. Fish-eating bald eagles, water-dependent river otters, migratory waterfowl and other riparian-dependent species will also be affected if constant boat traffic is present.

The unregulated floating of Colorado rivers has been proposed for one of the most precious wildlife habitats in our state — the thin, vegetated line along waterways known as riparian habitat. Our riparian habitat represents just 3 percent of the land area, but it is essential to sustain 75 percent of our wildlife species.

If we were to consider such a major change within one of our national forests or other federal lands, we would be required by law to evaluate the environmental consequences through professional assessments and impact statements. Why would we want less for Colorado’s rivers?

Floating interests describe their effort as merely trying to “turn our rivers into highways.” The fact is, our rivers aren’t highways. They are rivers. They are essential environments in an arid landscape that require protection — protection from the disturbance that threatens so many wildlife species, protection from dangerous invasive species that travel on watercraft, but most of all, protection from over-exploitation of fisheries.

It doesn’t take a Las Vegas oddsmaker to wager on the effects on fish and wildlife habitat if an unfettered right to float is established. It would be like guessing the condition of your flower bed once the entire neighborhood used it as a public sidewalk.

We must consider sustainability and integrate all types of historic uses, like wildlife for instance, when considering how we share the river. If we don’t, we risk sacrificing what we hold most dear.

Mike Mitchell is a fisheries biologist with 30 years of experience in Colorado fisheries management.  He is a member of the American Fisheries Society, and is a well-published fisheries professional.  Mike has managed and improved river fisheries throughout the West.


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