| SALMON, Idaho
SALMON, Idaho Aug 18 Wildfires sweeping across
the western United States are straining communities that depend
upon the summer tourism season, as recreation sites catch fire,
campgrounds close and outdoor activities such as river rafting
In the mountains of central Idaho, where whitewater rafting
has replaced logging as an economic mainstay, blazes are
curtailing trips on rivers whose world-class rapids draw an
international crowd of thousands from June through August.
Tourists who booked rafting trips months in advance have
been canceling their reservations, spooked by fast-changing
blazes that have produced a smoky haze and led to road
"We've had nothing but cancellations," said Lorali Simmons,
owner of River Shuttles, a business in Salmon, Idaho, that
shuttles vehicles for boaters on the Middle Fork and the Salmon
River's wild and scenic corridor.
The wildfires that have scorched 80,000 acres (32,375
hectares) of mountain pine forests in east central Idaho
stranded 300 Middle Fork rafters northwest of Salmon this week
after falling rock closed the only road to the site.
Dozens of fires are burning out of control across parched
Western states, including California, where blazes have
encroached on national parks.
A survey released this week by the U.S. government shows the
number of Americans engaging in outdoor recreation rose last
year for the first time in three decades. At the same time,
remote, sparsely populated communities in western states have
tried to remake themselves as gateways to natural resources that
In recent years, fires, floods and heat waves have taken a
toll on a tourism industry that the Outdoor Industry Association
says generates more than $35 billion combined for Idaho,
Colorado and California annually.
There is no detailed accounting of the extent of tourism
losses from fires and other natural disasters, but tour
operators say they worry about losses due to fires as well as
those that arise from cancellations by worried customers.
"It could potentially be devastating," said Kristin McMahon
of Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch in Stanley, a base for dozens of
river outfitters and key launch sites for the Middle Fork Salmon
River through the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.
Wildfires have burned 6.5 million acres (2.63 million ha)
across the United States so far in 2012, about 1.5 million acres
more than the 10-year average for this time of year, according
to the National Interagency Fire Center.
In Idaho, campground closures and disrupted river runs began
earlier this month and have stretched southwest from the state
capital Boise through the Sawtooth Mountains near Sun Valley.
August is critical for the 175 licensed outfitters who offer
float and jet boat rides in Idaho, which has more river miles
than any other state except for Alaska, said Grant Simonds, head
of Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association.
"River outfitting operations pay their bills and overhead
expenses with June and July; August represents the 5 to 10
percent profit they stand to net," he said.
In Colorado, two huge blazes in June all but snuffed out
tourism in some areas. The 88,000-acre (35,612-ha) High Park
Fire northwest of Fort Collins burned onto the Roosevelt
National Forest, one of the most visited U.S. national forests.
Large sections of the forest, including certain campgrounds
and trails, remain closed, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman
There was "absolutely an impact" on recreational activities
such as rafting on the Cache La Poudre River, mountain biking
and hiking, she said.
In southern Colorado, the Waldo Canyon Fire forced the
evacuation of 5,000 residents of Manitou Springs, situated at
the foot of Pikes Peak and other tourist attractions near
"It's been far worse than we expected," Roger Miller, chief
operating officer of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce,
said of the fire's impact on the town.
Miller said that even though the blaze never reached Manitou
Springs, the fire cost $2 million in tourist revenues, cut
lodging reservations in half, shuttered two businesses and
placed another 15 at risk of closure.
In northern California, two fires caused by lightning have
blunted tourism in the area around Lassen Volcanic National
Park. Sharon Roberts of the nearby St. Bernard Lodge said she
had received numerous cancellations.
"It's tough. It's going to be tough for the whole
(Additional reporting by Keith Coffman in Colorado and Ronnie
Cohen in California; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Paul Simao)