Colo. rafting tourism struggles in wildfires' wake

(CBS News) Tourists are staying away from Colorado in the wake of the summer's devastating wildfires, and it's hurting one of the most popular whitewater rafting sites in America.

Recently, CBS News traveled to the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area and met some Coloradans who are hoping a wild ride can help restore the state's image and economy.

Since the start of May, 13 major fires - one, the worst in Colorado history - have roared through tinder-dry terrain, destroying forests, property and Colorado's summer tourist business.

Scott Peterson, marketing director of River Runners Rafting in Canon City, Colo., said, "We've had a lot of cancellations due to the forest fires and it's really hurt us. Our company's down about 25 percent. And I think all the companies are suffering. This river and whitewater rafting is the lifeline to these river communities, just like the ski areas are to the mountain towns."

Whitewater rafting is big business in Colorado. Last year, 211,150 people rode the Arkansas River, according to Colorado State Parks.

"We're the most commercially boated river in the United States, if not the world," said Royal Gorge Park Ranger Rob White. "And so, commercial boating and the revenue those companies bring to the state of Colorado is incredible."

Water-fueled adventure adds $150 million to the economy. But now, businesses are struggling to overcome Mother Nature's one-two punch: first the perception that Colorado's beauty went up in smoke. Second, that this winter's record low snow pack means low river levels this summer and fewer thrills.

But companies like River Runners say they have the answer: mini rafts. Compared to the lumbering, larger rafts they're 36 percent smaller, 64 percent lighter and 100 percent scarier, which means, according to Peterson, "(You get) more splashes, (and go) quicker, faster, like a Ferrari."

Since last weekend, the Colorado wildfires have been 100 percent contained. You can go whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River until Labor Day.

To see CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker's full report, including when he was unceremoniously tossed from a mini raft, watch the video in the player above.

  • Bill Whitaker

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