If you think nothing says “summer” like the experience of rafting one of Idaho’s most storied rivers, you’re not alone. This year, there were nearly 30,000 applications submitted to float the big four: the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the Main Salmon, the Selway, and the Snake rivers.
These world-class rivers, or sections, are so popular that the U.S. Forest Service monitors traffic on them with an elaborate lottery system that starts in January. Just 1,083 permits were awarded this year for the four. The odds of drawing a permit on the Middle Fork this summer were one in 34; on the Salmon, one in 29; on the Selway one in 72; and on the Snake, one in nine.
But for those who lost out on the first go-round, there’s always hope of picking up a permit by watching the Forest Service website like a hawk and pouncing on one of the permits that becomes available if a permit-holder can’t use it for some reason, and has to relinquish it.
For those with demanding jobs or lives, keeping a round-the-clock watch on the Forest Service website can be impractical. And this is where Billy Bateman, a Boise State University MBA student who is taking part in the school’s Venture College program, has seen an opportunity.
Bateman has created a website with a program that will notify subscribers when a permit becomes available. For a fee that he is still experimenting with, Bateman’s River Nerd monitors the relevant site and whenever a permit becomes available, will text and email River nerd users letting them know the date the permit is available for. After that, it’s first-come, first-served.
Bateman is getting some flack for his idea from rafters who think it upends the whole idea of rafting as a democracy, with a permitting process that is fair to all.
“Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe the private user allocation for these sites should remain equally accessible to everyone,” said one poster on social media, saying Bateman’s business gives an advantage to those who can pay.
Recreation.gov, the government service that works with a contractor to provide the reservation and permitting services for all of the federal agencies, is watching closely, said Janelle Smith, a public affairs specialist for the service.
“It’s not illegal,” she said of Bateman’s service. “We just want to make sure people are not forced into paying for a service in order to have access to these permits.”
Asked if recreation.gov planned to respond, Smith said, “I’m not sure we know the full impact of the service yet.”
For his part, Bateman says that if anything, he’s leveling the playing field for all the working stiffs who don’t have time to monitor recreation.gov all day for cancellations.
“While the current system works, there is some room for improvement,” he said. “If someone has plenty of time, then it’s great, but that isn’t a luxury everyone enjoys. My goal is to help fellow enthusiasts take advantage of as many outdoor opportunities as possible.”
Bateman, a Kuna native, didn’t start out with the goal of becoming a river permit impresario. He’s a former river guide who majored in property management at Brigham Young University and then came up with the idea for his venture in a most prosaic manner: he saw a need, and when he surveyed river users on Facebook to see if they would use a service like River Nerd, they said they would.
It didn’t cost much to set up the service. He paid a software developer in Russia to write the script that monitors the website, and he got help from peers at the Venture College in finding a site developer and setting up his business.
Right now, Bateman is only providing the service on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, but he’d like to expand it to the other three eventually, and then to famed rivers beyond Idaho’s borders.
River Nerd also provides other services, including a guide for new rafters, whether they want to try for the most famous waters or for the hundreds of other stretches of Idaho rivers on which rafting requires no permits from the Forest Service. Before launching River Nerd, Bateman already had a blog underway that helped people fill out their applications for rafting, and he analyzed Forest Service data to learn the best days of the week to apply for trips.
For now, Bateman is testing out his site and his customers with different pricing, and declined to say how much he charges. He has considered creating an app but said to do so would cost him more money.
“I am running this lean, to see if it works,” he said. “I don’t see it warrants being an app unless enough people are going to use it.”
It’s clear Bateman has found a business that does serve a need.
“This guy is on to something in terms of making it easier for people to pick up a cancellation,” said Steve Steubner, a rafting and recreation laureate of sorts in Idaho.“That’s really the only way to get on the permitted rivers: You just have to check for cancellations.”
The super-pragmatic Bateman said he’s going to add some Idaho rafting guides and possibly some equipment reviews to his website, to lower costs for people who haven’t planned a trip before. Ultimately, he’d like to expand River Nerd to other states. The idea that the Forest Service or its contractor itself might someday provide a similar service doesn’t faze him at all.
“If the Forest Service provided that service I’d be out of a gig,” he said. “But I wouldn’t complain that much either. Everyone wins; people get their trips.”
Anne Wallace Allen is editor of the Idaho Business Review