Rafting draws a group of nature lovers with higher than average respect for keeping wilderness clean. But even the raft outfitting industry faces environmental issues— both in external threats to river quality and, in a much smaller way, in making sure their participants are educated in Leave No Trace best practices.

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“Rafters, both commercial and privates, are extremely conscientious and respectful of the river and its environment,” said Steve Lentz, owner of Idaho-based Far & Away Adventures. His company rafts three Wild and Scenic rivers: the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the Jarbidge/Bruneau and Owyhee rivers— two of the newest to win Wild & Scenic designations, which are especially prized for their solitude and remoteness, Lentz said.

But Lentz can remember when people weren’t so respectful of rivers. When he explored the Middle Fork as a child in the 1960s, toilet paper and other garbage littered the riverbanks and people thought nothing of washing with soap in the river. Once the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act passed in 1968, he watched people’s environmental IQ increase while litter decreased. Inhabitat talked to five rafting outfitters to see how their staff and customers can have an impact on keeping rivers clean and beautiful.

Related: Seven commandments of Leave-No-Trace Camping

group of people river rafting

Sustainable Rafting Practices

Guided rafting trips start way before the raft goes in the water. That’s why Hood River, Oregon-based Northwest Rafting Company’s sustainability measures begin with its office and the supplies they buy. NWRC uses software for reservations and online registration, resulting in minimal printed paper. They’re one of a growing number of outfitters who use online waivers and forms to cut printing.

Outfitters are well-versed in Leave No Trace principles. “Fortunately, we live in a state that is environmentally conscious,” said Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon River Expeditions, which rafts Colorado’s Arkansas River above and through the famed Royal Gorge. “The rafting industry is scrutinized by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and our outfitter organizations work closely to meet and exceed the standards set forth. Colorado Tourism Office works with the Leave No Trace organization to promote responsible use of our natural resources.”

Leave No Trace is more rigorous than many people realize. Zachary Collier, owner of Northwest Rafting Company, says this even includes burnt wood. “I suggest all groups use a fire blanket to capture coals from fires,” he advised. Guides and guests sweep the campsite for micro-trash, such as bread crumbs and orange peels. Nor are rafters allowed to leave human waste, let alone toilet paper. Portable toilets are sealed and transported between campsites, and later carried out at the end of the journey.

group of people river rafting

Bob Klein, manager of A Wanderlust Adventure, which rafts Colorado’s Cache la Poudre River, emphasizes the responsibility of the guides. “We believe that rafting outfitters should be enforcing Leave No Trace, educate their guests on the dangers and effects of human recreation on the natural environment, and to keep the amount of rafters they take down the river to the Forest Service’s regulations.” 

But the responsibility doesn’t entirely fall on the guide— all rafting participants need to make good choices. “High water looks like fun, but fun can turn to tragedy very quickly when people’s skill levels don’t meet the river’s demand,” said Ron Blanchard, owner of Wyoming River Trips, which operates on the Main Shoshone River.  “We try to mentor rafters when conditions are extreme with information as to what to lookout for.  Most times if you talk with them and not to them, they get the point.”

The Bigger Picture

Lots of issues facing rivers are beyond people’s individual control. For example, Collier mentions the damage caused by mining.  “The 1872 mining law allows for mining on these rivers and their tributaries even if they are protected,” he said.

Neinas has also faced the dumping of hard metals from mining operations near the river’s headwaters close to Leadville, Colorado. “As well as fish kills that resulted from attempts to eradicate invasive species,” he said. Blanchard mentioned agricultural field runoff as the main threat to the Shoshone.

Several outfitters urged rafters to be more proactive in protecting their beloved rivers. “I would love for more guides and outfitters to call, write, or visit Congress to share why these rivers are important and why they should be protected,” said Collier. He and some fellow guides recently visited Washington, D.C. to meet with their representatives about environmental conditions.

group of people river rafting

Lentz agreed. “Be involved and get out of the back seat. From forest plans regarding management to breaching dams that harm the river. Support organizations that that prioritize efforts to strengthen the wilderness and its environment.”

Each guide has a special relationship with his or her river, and can tell you 100 reasons it needs protection. For example, Lentz expounded on the attractions of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River: “Alpine forests, hot springs, blue ribbon fly fishing for native cutthroat trout, hiking well maintained trails, crystal clear water, 100 rapids, North America’s third deepest canyon, wildlife including elk, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, both golden and bald eagle, cougar, black bear to name a few.”

Are rivers worth protecting? You bet.

Photos via Echo Canyon River Expeditions, skeeze