GRAND Canyon National Park on Oct. 1 will start taking applications for self-guided rafting permits on the Colorado River, using a new lottery that replaces a 26-year-old wait-list system.
The lottery will allocate permits for private trips as opposed to those run by commercial outfitters. Private, or noncommercial, trip permits, which have attracted more than 1,000 applicants a year, are among the most coveted and hardest to obtain in the national parks.
Whether the lottery will make the permits easier to get is debatable. But it may, at least, open the process to newcomers. It may also require applicants to use new strategies to maximize their chances of "winning."
Here's how it works, according to Steve Sullivan, permits program manager for the park:
* You can apply for a permit -- choosing up to five dates for trips next year -- from Oct. 1 to 21.
* You'll pay a $25 nonrefundable application fee.
* The lottery will be held Oct. 23, and winners will be notified "shortly thereafter," Sullivan said.
* Winners will pay a trip deposit of $200 to $400, depending on the number of participants in their group. The deposit will be applied to permit fees of $100 per participant, with the balance due 90 days before the launch.
For details on the lottery, visit www.nps.gov/grca and select "River Permits" or call (800) 959-9164.
Under the old permit system, which began in 1980, applicants for self-guided river trips paid $100 to be put on a wait list that had grown to more than 8,200 people by 2003, when the list was frozen. Some waited 10 years or more to get a permit, Sullivan said, adding that the system generated complaints.
The new system permits 503 launches per year for self-guided trips, compared with an average of 253 per year. Also permit dates are more spread out during the year. (Because some permits were assigned to people on the old wait list, only 197 launches are in the 2007 lottery.)
Next summer, , commercial launches are expected to outnumber self-guided trips by more than 2 to 1. That's a smaller ratio than in the past, but it's still a sore point with four nonprofit environmental groups that sued the park service over the Colorado River Management Plan, which generated the lottery. The suit is pending.
The plan "continues the ... commercialization of a proposed wilderness area," said Tom Martin, co-director for one of the plaintiffs, River Runners for Wilderness in Boulder, Colo.
Defending the plan, Sullivan said, "We added launches whenever we could for noncommercial users while trying not to hurt commercial users. It was a balancing act."
But Martin said the likelihood of getting a permit under the new lottery is "as good as being hit by lightning."
Sullivan disputed that. He said the chances were unknown "because we've never done this before." Applicants may have a better chance under the lottery because they will compete for specific dates, not for the whole year, as they did under the old system, he said.
For applicants, here's a tip: Spread your dates out, and consider less popular times, such as fall or winter, when fewer people are likely to apply.