The outdoor-adventure outfitters who guide 20,000 passengers annually through the canyon’s whitewater turbulence also generate hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of dollars for Flagstaff’s economy.
Discover Flagstaff Director Trace Ward says Grand Canyon is the number one driver of visitors to Northern Arizona. “With this comes a tapestry of services and activities surrounding the ‘Grand Canyon Bucket List,’ with none more quintessential than the river outfitters,” he said.
Grand Canyon National Park has authorized 16 outfitters to carry passengers down the Colorado. Ten of them have warehouses and/or offices in Flagstaff, said John Dillon, Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association executive director.
In June, the National Park Service extended the 16 outfitters’ contracts for a decade through 2033.
Despite concerns about reduced water releases from Glen Canyon Dam and drought-stricken Lake Powell, demand for rafting trips through the Grand Canyon remains high, Dillon said. Trips are typically booked 12 to 18 months in advance.
“It is always a very fluid – no pun intended – process in this business where conditions are tough, uncontrollable and in constant change,” he said. “For nearly 90 years, the Grand Canyon guided-river outfitting industry has evolved and adapted to all types of conditions in the industry we helped invent.”
Grand Canyon river trips have a reputation of being among the world’s premier wilderness river experiences. That has spawned a river-outfitters industry centered in Flagstaff that has a significant impact on the local economy. Private river trips also contribute to the area economy.
Commercial river trips cost roughly $2,500 to $6,000, depending on the number of days and boat types. They generate $46 million in gross revenue for the outfitters, according to the National Park Service.
A 2003 Northern Arizona University study of the commercial river outfitters estimated the industry created 357 jobs and had a total economic impact on the region of $21 million. Adjusted for inflation, that figure today would be more than $36 million.
“Some of the numbers we’ve seen about the total economic impact of our industry appear to be grossly outdated and understated,” said Dillon, adding that a new study would be helpful.
Under the new contracts, outfitters are required to pay a 3% minimum franchise fee to the National Park Service on gross receipts of up to $800,000. That fee would be $24,000 for $800,000 in gross receipts. The fee percentage increases to 22% on gross receipts of $2.8 million or more.
The outfitters association reports there are 1,100 certified river guides and about 150 full-time employees who work year-round for the 16 outfitters.
In addition to jobs, payroll and taxes, the outfitters have expenditures for rafts, boating equipment, outboard motors, maintenance and gas for their vehicles, camping equipment, food, ice, propane, insurance and laundry services. It’s a daunting logistical challenge to feed and shepherd rafters safely down the Colorado River for up to 280 miles.
But many outfitters have a long history of river rafting through the Grand Canyon. Canyoneers has roots that go back to 1938 and one of the first commercial trips through the canyon guided by Norm Nevills.
Hatch River Expeditions, with an office in Flagstaff, was started by Bus Hatch, who led his first Grand Canyon trip in 1934, according to Hatch’s website.
Flagstaff-based Arizona Raft Adventures, also known as AzRA, got its start in 1965. It has a roster of 130 river guides, boatmen and boatwomen, for about 75 trips per year from April to October. The company employs 15 full-time workers year-round and another 15 full-timers seasonally, said Dennis Smoldt, AzRA general manager.
The key to successful river trips is enthusiastic guides, Smoldt said. “We rely on guides who are excited to share their passion for the canyon with their passengers.
“The guiding industry has started a long-awaited turnover where the older guides are starting to age out,” he said. “And it seems like the newer generation that have been coming in over the past few years aren’t lifer guides like there used to be.”
Potential passengers have expressed concerns about the Southwest’s drought conditions, but it has not hurt AzRA’s business, Smoldt said.
The Bureau of Reclamation is “letting higher flows out of Glen Canyon Dam right now than what we’re used to this time of year,” he said, noting that flows have been ranging from 16,000 to 20,000 cubic feet per second, compared to 8,000 to 12,000 cfs last summer. FBN
By Peter Corbett, FBN
Courtesy Photo: Arizona Raft Adventures takes visitors through the Colorado River’s white water on about 75 trips per year from April to October.