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Scouting the Rapids: West Virginia's Commercial White water Industry

By Steven A. Whisman and Steven J. Hollenhorst

Editor's Note: The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources recently released the results of a multiyear study on the state's whitewater rafting industry. This article, excerpted from Wonderful West Virginia magazine, summarizes the findings. The full report can be viewed at: www.caf.wvu.edu/for/pandr/wvww/wvww.cfm

Adventure travel was once seen as the realm of explorers and scientists such as Lewis and Clark, Amelia Earhart, Edmund Hillary and Jacques Cousteau. Gold, glory, science and discovery were the goals. It was something most people experienced only vicariously in the pages of National Geographic.

Now, it seems everybody is doing it. Reasons are many, but include ever-falling transportation costs, a vibrant economy and the growing affluence of a generation of baby-boomers who grew up in an age of environmentalism, healthy lifestyles, and individualism. It may also be that our comfortable modern lifestyle, insulated as it is from risks and danger, has become, well, boring to many people.

Until recently, adventure travel was barely visible on the radar screen of the travel industry. Today, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, it is the industry's fastest-growing sector. The Travel Industry Association of America reports that 98 million Americans, half of all U.S. adults, took an adventure getaway within the last five years.

In West Virginia, adventure travel takes many different forms, but one of the most popular is white water rafting. With the booming popularity of the sport, natural resource managers - charged with preserving high-quality river experiences and public access - have faced difficult and sometimes controversial decisions about how many, when, and where commercial whitewater outfitters could use our rivers.

The challenge for the state is to carefully nurture the economic benefits of an expanding rafting industry while protecting the common property resources of which rivers are a part, and the quality of the experiences of the people who use them.

In 1992, the Legislature mandated a multi-year study of commercial white water rafting in West Virginia. The study, by researchers at West Virginia University, focused on four main issues: overcrowding, safety, economic impact and environmental impact. The rivers of interest were the New, Gauley, Cheat, Shenandoah, and Tygart Valley.

How Much, Where and When?

Of the millions of people who have taken an adventure trip in the past five years, 31 million engaged in "hard" adventure activities such as scuba diving, mountain biking, and whitewater rafting. While diving opportunities in West Virginia are rare, high-quality resources are available for biking and rafting. Following a national trend, white water rafting, kayaking and canoeing in West Virginia are among the most rapidly growing adventure travel activities.

The state's white water industry emerged 30 years ago, long before the adventure sports became mainstream. Since then, it has grown to about 30 outfitters who provide a variety of services. Guided whitewater trips are still their bread-and-butter, but outfitters have diversified their offerings to include fishing trips, camping, kayak instruction, rock climbing, caving, mountain biking and horseback riding.

Each of the study rivers is unique, differing dramatically in commercial use and types of trips. According to the WVU study, more than 250,000 people took commercially guided raft trips on the study rivers in 1995. More than half rafted the New River and almost a third rafted the Gauley. On each of these rivers, commercial rafters may number as many as 5,000 a day. Private boaters, mainly kayakers and canoeists, added another 5% to 15% to these totals.

Commercial rafting on the New, Gauley and Shenandoah rivers has approximately doubled since the 1980's with growth of up to 10% annually. Conversely, rafting on the Cheat occurs at a level approximately one-fourth of a decade ago, and rafting on the Tygart Valley River is declining as well.

Commercial rafting in West Virginia is not limited to the warm summer months when most people vacation. Guided trips are available from early spring to late fall, but peak river use varies by river. On the Cheat River, the peak season extends for about six weeks from mid-April through Memorial Day. On the New and Shenandoah, the peak seasons extend throughout the summer, primarily Memorial Day through Labor Day. On the Gauley River, more than 90% of rafting occurs during the six-week draw-down of Summersville Lake, which begins just after Labor Day and extends to mid-October.

Economic Impact of Commercial Rafting

The commercial rafting industry has contributed substantially to diversification of the state's economy in recent decades, as recreation and tourism have grown to become a primary source of employment, income and pride in many communities. Conservative estimates of the total direct expenditures by commercial boaters on the Cheat, New and Gauley rivers were $49.4 million in 1995. Of these expenditures, approximately $43.1 million were made within West Virginia, with $41.3 million spent locally within the counties surrounding the rivers. Estimates of local spending by individual boaters averaged from $104 on the Cheat River, to $151 on the New and $148 on the Gauley.

And not all this money is going to the outfitters. Commercial boaters spent money in large amounts at restaurants, retail stores, gas stations, motels and hotels, and night clubs. This accounted for 35% to 41% of total direct spending by commercial rafters.

Because West Virginia and its rivers are located only a short distance from large, rapidly growing population centers, people traveled from all directions to go rafting. On the average, boaters traveled one-way distances of 269 to 436 miles to raft on the Cheat, New and Gauley rivers. States most represented by commercial guests include New York, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina and Washington D.C. West Virginians made up a small proportion of rafters on all three rivers: 2.5% on the Cheat, 7.5% on the New, and 2.8% on the Gauley, for an overall total of about 5%.

Economic impact estimates associated with the travel and expenditures of commercial boaters were substantial. Data from the WVU study suggest that total statewide economic impacts were about $59.3 million in total output, $22.9 million in personal income, and $16.6 million in employee compensation. As well, approximately 1,416 full- and part-time jobs were created. Because of larger numbers of commercial boaters, most of these impacts are attributable to the New River (57%), followed by the Gauley River (39%) and the Cheat (4%).

Threats to Whitewater River Resources

While the high rates of commercial whitewater rafting are reassuring in terms of recreation and economic activity, West Virginia recognizes its responsibility to ensure the long-term visibility of its rivers and the rafting industry. Because the industry is fundamentally dependent on common property resources that essentially are free to anyone choosing to use them, the state's role in management of commercial rafting is critically important.

Among the many problems is the potential for overcrowding and congestion. An objective of the WVU study was to find out when and where high levels of crowding may be related to issues of river carrying capacity.

Other critical management issues include access for other river users, public safety, and the environmental impact of heavy river use. The environmental impact component of the study found that sites where commercial raft trips assemble adjacent to rivers are numerous and large. On some study rivers, these sites are averaged up to 4,500 feet, some two to three times larger than similar sites in other areas in the eastern United States. Using the baseline data from the study, West Virginia can monitor these sites for undesirable expansion in either number or size.

River Management

A cooperative planning effort among WVU, DNR and the Whitewater Commission led to the development of a management plan for commercial river use in West Virginia. The plan is based on a nationally-recognized natural resource planning process called Limits of Acceptable Change. LAC provides resource managers with a framework for establishing standards. It is responsive to changes in the recreation setting, and accommodates long-term monitoring and evaluation of resource conditions.

In the LAC plan, opportunity classes define the types of experiences that commercial river users can expect on high, moderate, and low use days. The plan specifies standards for indicators of river crowding, congestion, and trip quality for each class. When indicator standards are exceeded, they serve as triggers for appropriate management responses from DNR and the Whitewater Commission.

The LAC plan is information-driven. A constant flow of timely and up-to-date information is required to monitor river use, crowding, and trip quality so that river management problems can be handled.

Conclusion

The facilities, services and promotional efforts of commercial whitewater outfitters in West Virginia are among the best in the nation, helping maintain the state's competitive advantage as an adventure travel destination. With its new LAC river management plan, West Virginia has a framework that will enable it to systematically and objectively manage its whitewater rivers using reliable, up-to-date information.

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Dr. Whisman and Hollenhorst are research associate and associate professor, respectively, in the Recreation, Parks and Tourism Management program at West Virginia University.

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Article and photos are reprinted from Wonderful West Virginia magazine, published by the state Division of Natural Resources. All rights reserved.