Colorado Rafting Businesses Hire Right-Wing Law Firm to Keep Guide Pay Low

It may seem an unlikely pairing: A law firm that is fighting to roll back clean water protections across the United States and a coalition of raft companies in Colorado that often train their guides to give interpretive talks on environmental preservation.

But last week the two found common cause when they filed a lawsuit against President Joe Biden and the Department of Labor. Their goal? To block an executive order that’s set to go into effect in January, which raises the minimum wage for raft guides and other workers on federal land to $15 an hour.

“They’re using resources and time and effort and money to fight this [minimum wage rule] rather than being a leader in creating a better life for their employees”

It didn’t take long for criticism to start rolling in. “Rafting company owners are teaming up with the people who actively destroy river ecosystems,” an environmental litigator and river guide wrote on Twitter, “to deny their working class, highly skilled, and certified guides a living wage. [They’re] literally employing the [people] running them out of business to avoid paying us a few more dollars an hour.”

According to the plaintiffs — Duke Bradford, owner of the rafting and zipline company Arkansas Valley Adventure, and the Colorado River Outfitters Association, a trade group representing around 50 river companies — Biden’s order is poised to upset the industry in Colorado and other states. Bradford said it could cause outfitters to raise prices or scale back multi-day offerings since outfitters would be required to start paying overtime pay under the new labor regulations.

The Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), the tax-exempt law firm that filed the suit on behalf the river outfitters, has been bankrolled by the Koch brothers, ExxonMobil, the conservative Adolph Coors Foundation as well as executives in the tobacco, pharmaceutical and agricultural industries. The firm has fought to give more power to landlords during the pandemic, to end federal protections for endangered species, and to allow more pollution to enter American streams and rivers.

Patrick Parenteau, a professor at the Vermont Law School who specializes in environmental law, said PLF’s role as litigators is very narrow and almost always focused on anti-regulation issues.

“They’re really just an extension of industry,” Parenteau said. “They have a 501(c)(3) charitable status, but … their docket is exclusively representing the economic interests of regulated industries or landowners.”

Parenteau added PLF is in the Supreme Court right now arguing a case that, if successful, would reduce federal water quality protections in 70% of the waters of the U.S.

“Do they really care about water quality?” he said. “No, absolutely not.”

Bradford, who owns multiple recreation-related businesses and rentals throughout Colorado that received at least $2.8 million from the federal Paycheck Protection Program since 2020, acknowledged that PLF’s track record may not align completely with those of Arkansas Valley Adventure, which lists environmental awareness and education among its core values.

“I understand that they’ve taken on different issues over the years that may run contrary to our beliefs,” he said. “I can’t change what the Pacific group has done in the past … but that doesn’t mean that you don’t join forces when we all believe in a common good here.”

“There’s no defined IQ necessary to be on Twitter,” said David Costlow, executive director of the Colorado River Outfitters Association, referring to criticisms he characterized as “cheap shots.”

“[PLF has] a history of defending people against government overreach,” he said. “We had a situation where there was government overreach and the decision was made to work with Pacific Legal to prove our point.”

Both Bradford and Costlow said that a minimum wage increase for the outdoor industry should only come through Congress, not an executive order, and the lawsuit alleges Biden overstepped his authority when he reversed a Trump-era rule that exempted outfitters on public lands from federal wage standards.

But for current and former river guides throughout Colorado who support a pay bump for workers, the alliance between the raft companies and PLF is particularly disheartening.

Dan Robertson, who has a business background and has worked in multiple roles throughout the Colorado river rafting industry, said he has “tremendous respect” for the companies Bradford has built and for past advocacy efforts from the outfitters association.

“I’m just really, really disappointed that this is the fight they have picked and that they have chosen to do it this way,” he said. “They’re using resources and time and effort and money to fight this [minimum wage rule] rather than being a leader in creating a better life for their employees who are — besides the environment — the most important and vital asset that the industry has.”

River outfitters, in Robertson’s view, too often treat workers as commodities. Even guides with many years of experience on the Arkansas River and elsewhere live in vans, tents or bunkhouses, contributing to a high turnover rate and the continual loss of talent, both in terms of river-running qualifications and interpersonal skills.

“If your business model is contingent on paying sub-livable wages,” he said, “then it’s a really bad business model and it needs to change.”

PLF and the plaintiffs on the lawsuit have argued that the wage increase will ultimately hurt workers because it could force companies to cap guides’ schedules at 40 hours per week and could make it more difficult to provide raises to veteran guides.

“It’s nice to live in utopia,” Costlow said. “I’ve never been able to find utopia.”

Marshall Steinbaum, assistant professor of economics at the University of Utah, said that’s an argument you almost never hear from workers themselves. “There’s no sense in which raising the wages of workers harms workers,” he said.

What’s more, Biden’s executive order and the final rule issued by the Department of Labor last month point to research that minimum wage standards don’t always result in the cost increases that business opponents worry about.

“As a matter of labor economics, higher pay reduces turnover and aids retention of workers, so you have more experienced workers on the job,” Steinbaum said. “Labor costs don’t go up for employers as much as you would think, if the wages go up, because they don’t have to hire and retrain workers on such a high frequency…. And in general, we know that like workplace safety and wages are positively correlated.”

For Robertson, the former guide, even if some of the outfitters’ predictions about a $15 minimum wage bear out, that in itself says something important about how the industry is structured.

“If your business model is contingent on paying sub-livable wages,” he said, “then it’s a really bad business model and it needs to change.”

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