OPINION | ARKANSAS SPORTSMAN: Buffalo River boat rentals will get more expensive
November 12, 2023 at 3:04 a.m.
As reported Friday in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the National Park Service has proposed prohibiting Buffalo River outfitters from shuttling customer vehicles to their takeout points. Instead, outfitters will be required to transport customers back to their points of origin.
The new policy, if adopted, will take effect in 2026. However, outfitters will probably increase canoe rental fees in 2024 to raise capital to purchase new buses to handle larger numbers of passengers. Most will probably implement the new policy ahead of schedule.
Currently, outfitters use a mishmash of tactics to transport canoeists and kayakers to and from the river. Wild Bill's Canoe Rental in Yellville offers two popular floats from Spring Creek Recreation Area to the Arkansas 14 bridge, and a longer float from Spring Creek to Rush. In 2023, similar to the proposed policy, customers left their vehicles at the Highway 14 Access and met the outfitter at scheduled times at either takeout point. The outfitter shuttled large groups back to Arkansas 14 in a small bus, and shuttled individuals in a van or pickup truck.
Crockett's Canoe Rental at Harriet operates primarily between Maumee and Spring Creek. They take large groups to the launch point in buses or trucks and shuttled individual vehicles to takeout points, as does Silver Hill Canoe Rental at Silver Hill.
Outfitters on the middle part of the river often have canoes waiting at access points like Woolum, Baker Ford or Tyler Bend. Customers drive their own vehicles to the put-ins, and the outfitters shuttle their vehicles to the takeouts at Tyler Bend Recreation Area, Grinder's Ferry (U.S. 65), or Gilbert.
Outfitters on the upper river typically offer day floats from Steel Creek to Kyle's Landing, and overnight floats from Steel Creek to Pruitt.
Supposedly, the new policy intends to relieve vehicle congestion and traffic at small access areas like Kyles, Rush, Grinder's Ferry and Gilbert, which don't have much parking capacity. It will consolidate vehicle congestion at the river's main launch areas at Steel Creek, Tyler Bend, Pruitt and Arkansas 14.
To transport a greater number of people in a more orderly fashion, outfitters say they will have to buy bigger buses, and also buses with four-wheel drive.
The roads to Kyle's Landing and Baker Ford are steep and narrow. A vehicle traversing the roads often will need new brake pads frequently, but we haven't seen road conditions that would require four-wheel drive.
However, those roads are too narrow in places to accommodate two-way traffic for regular passenger vehicles. If you meet somebody coming the other way, one vehicle often must pull to the side. It would be very difficult for buses to traverse that road without a lot of coordination.
On the other hand, discontinuing vehicle shuttles will ease staffing pressure on outfitters because they won't have to dispatch employees to shuttle customer vehicles.
Currently, outfitters charges about $40 to shuttle customer vehicles. Since outfitters will assume the entire cost of the effort and assets to comply with the policy, they will probably transfer the cost of shuttling to the cost of renting a boat.
Outfitters will have to buy additional vans or buses, and that will translate directly to additional maintenance costs. Multiple daily trips on rutted, potholed mountain roads damages vehicles. Shuttling more people will require more road exposure, which will require more maintenance.
Ultimately, the cost of implementing new policy will regulate small outfitters out of business.
Influential people in the state's tourism industry want to transform the Buffalo National River into a model similar to the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia. That will change a lot of things, many of which are beyond the scope of this column.
In the short term, most visitors will notice only a higher cost to rent a boat.