Growing up in Nebraska, I visited Colorado on family vacations and was addicted to the state’s natural beauty and the many outdoor opportunities. Later, I would make Colorado my home, where I would earn my living in the great outdoors.
I founded Arkansas River Adventures (AVA) in Buena Vista in 1998. For nearly a quarter century, AVA’s experienced wilderness guides have led guests on rafting and fishing adventures, zipline excursions and other recreational opportunities in the Arkansas River Valley. I’m proud of the company we’ve built and the jobs we’ve created. And I’m always thrilled to see the joy and excitement on the faces of the families and children who embark on these adventures – I see in them the same sense of wonder that moved me during my childhood visits to this beautiful state.
But now our small business is threatened by President Biden’s order requiring federal contractors to pay a $15 minimum wage, which will undoubtedly increase our costs and force us to reduce our outdoor leisure offers. Here’s why I’m fighting in court to stop this order.
Outdoor outfitters, who operate on federal lands, are included in this order, which expands the meaning of “federal contractor” beyond all meaning. After all, outfitters like mine don’t get paid to provide services to the federal government, as contracting is commonly thought of. Instead, we hold government-issued special use permits that allow us to operate on federal lands. So, in effect, it’s the opposite of contracting: as permit holders, we pay the government for the privilege of working on federal lands.
It is also helpful to understand that this business is not a typical 40 hour per week business. First, we are a seasonal business, with most of our bookings between May and September. Second, there are no clocks in the woods; Since a rafting and camping trip can span several days, we do not observe a 9 to 5 work schedule. We pay our experienced guides a flat rate for one trip, rather than a hourly wage.
It turns out that guide pay is usually over $15 an hour. But if we were forced to adopt an hourly wage structure, with time-and-a-half overtime, we would have to dramatically increase the cost of guided trips, as well as cut back on multi-day adventures. The math just doesn’t work: on a three-day (72-hour) trip, a guide would be pushed to work overtime after the 40th hour.
Because the work is seasonal, guides often work upwards of 40 hours per week in season when demand is higher, sometimes planning back-to-back trips during busy months. During the off-season, many may choose to migrate to other places to take up different jobs or live off savings banked from their hard work of the previous months. If you work in a traditional office, this type of work arrangement can be confusing. But for us, it’s part of the outdoor lifestyle, which values freedom and flexibility. Most guides I’ve known would rather die than spend their time sitting in a cubicle emailing and enduring a marathon series of Zoom meetings.
A rigid and uniform salary rule simply does not work for all business models. In its zeal to impose a top-down minimum wage standard, the Biden administration is likely to crush small operators like AVA and restrict affordable opportunities for Americans to enjoy recreational opportunities on federal lands.
We had hoped to negotiate an exemption from the wage requirement for our industry, as we had received in the past, but no such exemption materialized. So we’re suing in federal court, with the Colorado River Outfitters Association, which represents the outdoor adventure industry. We are represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit legal organization that defends the individual liberty and constitutional rights of all Americans.
I don’t like the task of suing the federal government. I prefer to spend my time and energy building my business and serving our customers. But recognizing the potential impact of the Biden administration’s order, I realized someone had to step up to challenge a rule that could devastate our industry. A legal victory in our case will go a long way to ensuring that outdoor opportunities remain affordable and accessible to Americans for years to come.
Duke Bradford is the founder and owner of Arkansas Valley Adventures, and is a plaintiff in the Duke Bradford, et al. v. Secretary Martin J. Walsh, et al.
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