Forest Service eyes changes to lottery for rafting permits

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LEWISTON — There might be hope for rafters who have a history of rotten luck when it comes to drawing coveted permits for the Selway and Middle Fork of the Salmon rivers.

The U.S. Forest Service is exploring the idea of giving unsuccessful participants increasingly better odds in permit lotteries for the two rivers for each year they fail to be drawn.

Under the proposed change, those who apply and fail to win a permit for the Selway or Middle Fork starting in 2015 would receive duplicate applications if they apply for the same river or rivers in 2016. If they fail to win a permit and enter again in 2017, they would receive two duplicates.

The number of duplicates would continue to build each year, with no maximum number. Those who draw permits would reset to zero duplicates for the following year’s lottery. Rafters who fail for any reason to enter a lottery, or those who draw but don’t use their permits, would forfeit their accrued duplicates and reset to zero the next time they enter the annual drawing.

“We do get a lot of complaints when people have been trying to draw and don’t get the river they want on the date they want,” said Trish Callaghan, recreation manager for the Salmon-Challis National Forest based in Salmon.

The Forest Service manages rafting on both rivers, plus the main Salmon River and the Snake River in Hells Canyon through the Four Rivers lottery system. The actual drawing and application system is operated by a private contractor through recreation.gov. Rafters and kayakers pay a small fee to enter the lottery between Dec. 1 and Jan. 31. Those who are successful get permits to run the rivers in the busy summer season when access is controlled.

But winning isn’t easy. In the recently completed lottery, 9,847 people applied for 387 permits on the Middle Fork — drawing odds of 1-in-25. For the Selway, 2,933 applied for 62 permits for odds of 1-in-47. If the change is adopted, the drawings will continue to be random. That means a first-timer could still win a permit over somebody with duplicate applications. But those with multiple permits would have slightly better odds.

“I think for most boaters it sounds like it could improve their chances of pulling one of those permits that are really desirable,” said Clyde Nicely, a Lewiston boater who works for the rafting gear company Northwest River Supply.

Some river runners commenting on the proposal in online forums have pointed out the majority of people who enter fail to win, so in future years there will be a lot of people with multiple applications. That could do little to improve the drawing odds of any individual and make it even more difficult for newcomers or those who have to start from scratch to draw a permit.

The Forest Service is taking comments on its proposal and the contractor is working on a way to incorporate the proposed change. Boaters who participated in this year’s lottery received emails announcing the proposal and seeking feedback on Feb. 14.

Callaghan said the agency received 150 by the next morning and 700 as of Monday.

She said some people are coming up with their own systems, which they deem more fair. For example, some have suggested that boaters who draw a permit be excluded from entering the lottery for a year or more.

Callaghan said such ideas are interesting, but also are more difficult to administer, which in turn would raise the price.

“Tracking folks and adding to clerical duties isn’t something we are ready or want to take on right now,” she said. “We are really just trying to get a sense of what people want and get a sense of how much the options might cost us.”

Comments on the proposal are due by March 15. More information is available at http://1.usa.gov/12m9d90.

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