A letter written last month by 10 Arizona and Utah legislators to Interior Secretary Gale Norton urging her to eliminate the Colorado River from Grand Canyon National Park’s wilderness recommendation was met with support by commercial operators and opposition by wilderness advocates and river runners.
“We respectfully urge that the administration move forward to eliminate the Colorado River corridor within the Grand Canyon from further consideration for possible designation as wilderness or potential wilderness,” the May 8 letter reads, “and that the administration, in a timely manner, submit its official Grand Canyon wilderness recommendation to Congress for our consideration.”
Among the 10 lawmakers signing the letter were Arizona’s Jon Kyl, J.D. Hayworth, John Shadegg, Jeff Flake, Rick Renzi and Trent Franks. The signatures of Sen. John McCain and Rep. Raul Grijalva were not on the letter.
“We certainly support the thrust of the letter,” said Mark Grisham of the Grand Canyon Outfitters Association. “The issue here is resolution. The Park Service needs to know what visitor experience criteria to manage for ... and that can only come through a decision on whether or not the river is recommended wilderness or not.”
Public river runners believe the letter interrupts the process allowing the public to take part in Grand Canyon’s future.
“This is not the way; as Americans, we believe in the public process,” said Tom Martin, co-director of River Runners for Wilderness. “The Park Service received 50,000 comments (on the river management issue). To wipe clean all these comments, I find fascinating.”
Following National Environ-mental Policy Act guidelines with public review and participation, in 1977 the National Park Service submitted a final wilderness recommendation, which included the river as wilderness to the Department of Interior. The recommendation went through an in-house review at Grand Canyon in 1993. That review noted the river as “potential wilderness” pending the elimination of the nonconforming use of motorboats.
Wilderness designation would ban motors on the river, as well as using helicopters to transport commercial trip passengers. While waiting for a congressional vote, the park has continued to allow motors on the river for the past 20-plus years. Another issue involves the distribution of use between commercial operators and the public, now in a two-decade backlog for access to the river without the use of concessioners.
An official wilderness designation will not exist until the Department of Interior forwards it to the president, who then makes a recommendation to Congress.
As far as the Colorado River Management Plan process goes, Grisham says they are separate issues.
“The planning process does not produce a wilderness plan,” he said. “Those are separate issues. The situation here in Grand Canyon is the Park Service cannot write a river management plan until it know what values to include. Ultimately, that’s a legislative question.”
Jo Johnson, RRFW co-director, does not see things that way.
“This latest move by the outfitters to protect their own interests completely undercuts the ongoing Colorado River Management Plan process,” she said. “The efforts of the CRMP team, along with the comments and input of tens of thousands river runners and other Grand Canyon stakeholders submitted during the process, are rendered moot by any (changed) recommendation.”
Martin said the NPS does have clear guidelines on how to manage the resource.
“With the public as a partner, the park presents a recommendation up the chain, all the way to Congress, providing Congress with a clear picture of what the values of the park are, as identified by the public and park’s own criteria,” Martin said. “Congress has the final say on the park’s recommendation.”
In their letter, lawmakers urged Norton to take immediate action to ensure “success of the current planning process.”
The issue over motor use continues to be a sticking point, as was obvious during last year’s river plan public meetings around the country.
“We believe motorized use on the Colorado River is clearly in the public interest and should continue, and that the river corridor is not suitable nor appropriate to be wilderness,” Grisham said. “There’s also the question of impacts on the lands themselves, whether the river corridor meets the statutory definition of wilderness. The river corridor was dramatically altered by Glen Canyon Dam and there’s a question if it even meets the definition of wilderness.”
The politicians back the use of motors on the river, which translates into an estimated $30 million industry for commercial operators.
“Motorized recreational use plays a critical role in enabling the NPS to provide broad public access to this area in a manner consistent with resource protection,” the letter reads. “Three out of four professionally-outfitted river trip passengers now depend on rafts driven by quiet, Iow-emission, low-power, four-stroke motors.”
According to Martin, three of the four seats are motorized by a 10-year government contract.
“There is no choice here,” he said. “Once the oar trips are booked, the only other option for the public is to travel by motorized craft or stay home. This is some choice.”
“Without use of this kind, public access to these trips could be sharply reduced, by 50 percent or more,” the letter continues. “This use has no negative impact on park resources, the quality of the visitor experience, or even the area’s suitability for possible designation by Congress as wilderness.”
Conversely, critics say the situation has impacted the visitor experience based on various factors such as the 20-year waiting list for the general public that chooses to not use outfitter services.
“When the average backpacking group of three people hikes to the river and meets the average concessions river trip of 32 people on motorized tour boats, how can anyone say the visitor experience is not being negatively impacted?” Martin said.
“The current planning process is a chance to explore creative solutions within true wilderness treatment of the river in Grand Canyon, a circumvention of that process by demanding a wilderness recommendation without the river is truly tragic,” Johnson said.
Martin said the outfitters like to “champion themselves as protectors of the resource” and had a question for them.
“Why didn’t they get their legislative friends to move forward with this three years ago?” Martin said. “Why wait until now, unless there’s a clear political advantage to be gained by stripping the public voice out of management of that issue.”
The CRMP process, which will create an environmental impact statement for the plan with recommendations and alternatives on motorboats, is expected to be completed by 2004. A stakeholders’ meeting is scheduled for this month.