A noisy fight over user fees has erupted on Idaho's scenic lakes and world-famous river rapids. It pits white-water river rafters, kayakers, and canoeists against powerboaters.
At issue is who pays for water recreation-related services such as parking lots, docks, launching pads, restrooms, and search and rescue efforts.
Powerboaters complained to state officials that nonmotorized-boat owners were not paying their fair share of user fees.
Rafters, kayakers, canoeists, and white-water paddlers responded that they did not need docks or boat launch facilities. In most cases, they hand-carry their canoes and kayaks to the riverbanks and lake shores.
In short, motorboaters pay registration fees and gas taxes; nonmotorboaters do not. The two groups may or may not use some of the same public recreational facilities.
And in a state that boasts 880 square miles of water, watercraft fees of any kind generate heated discussion. The state has more than 2,000 lakes and several large navigable rivers such as the Snake, Coeur d'Alene, and Kootenai.
Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter supports a registration requirement, and he has convened a task force to advise the Legislature on licensing nonmotorized boats. Their task is to develop a fair and equitable approach to funding the state's boating program.
The task force has met twice this year, plans another meeting July 17 and intends to deliver recommendations this fall. Legislation is expected to be drafted for the next session, which begins in January.
Rob Lesser, founder of the Idaho Whitewater Association, opposes registration fees for nonmotorized boats.
"Boat launch facilities are not something we need," Lesser said.
Most of the white-water river rafters operate on U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management land over which the state has no jurisdiction, he said.
"It's just a reach out to try to find additional funding from a soft source," Lesser said.
People opposing the fees launched an online petition against the potential change to Idaho's watercraft registration requirements.
"This is an unfair tax, impossible to administer, targeting a group of users for something they don't use and already pay for," reads the petition at KayakIdaho.com.
Other states have had mixed results with registering canoes and kayaks. Arizona and Alaska experimented with the idea, but both abandoned it when it the administrative costs turned out to outweigh the revenues. Seven states now require registering nonmotorized boats: Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, and Connecticut.
Otter and proponents of registering nonmotorized boats have argued that they use some of the same facilities that are supported by fees on powerboats. In addition, all boaters may incur costs to the state through search-and-rescue services.
Forty-five people died in boating-related accidents in Idaho from 2002 to 2007. About half of those involved nonmotorized boating, the state parks department said.
After studying the proposed change in user fees, state Rep. George Sayler, a Democrat and one of the three state lawmakers on the task force, is not convinced.
"I'm more skeptical now than when we started," Sayler said. "I'm not seeing very much of a need."
The task force, he said, is "still taking input" and trying to resolve several complications such as whether owners of multiple nonpowerboats would have to register each craft.
Whether the fees would apply to kayaks and canoes coming in from out of state is also to be determined.
"It could be a burden to administer," Sayler said.