To the editor:
Your March 24 and March 31 editions feature lengthy news articles about the National Park Service's assessment of stock use at the Grand Canyon and the public hearings regarding this assessment. I have reviewed the assessment and attended the March 22 South Rim hearing, but have concluded that the park service may be exaggerating some of the problems it cites in defending the proposed mule use restrictions.
In the assessment and at the hearings the service has cited two main reasons for the restrictions: deteriorated trail conditions and what it calls conflicts with hikers. Having hiked the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails maybe 50 to 60 times during the 13 or so visits I have made to the park over the last five years, I have experienced no such conflicts during what were probably a few hundred mule group passes. The wranglers and riders have always been pleasant, and there was never an issue with stepping aside and letting the groups go by or waiting while they rested. Yes, I have seen a few hikers get impatient and try to get around the mule groups, but most hikers have seemed to enjoy stopping and watching the mules.
Regarding trail maintenance, when the park service cites a $24 million backlog of deferred maintenance and deteriorated conditions over the past 60 to 80 years, it is unclear to what standard the service wants the trails upgraded. If it wants the trails to become the equivalent of smooth dirt sidewalks (they actually already are in some places), then by that standard, I guess, the trails are in bad shape. On the other hand, perhaps they need not be quite so manicured.
Basic maintenance to preserve safety for mules and average hikers is essential. But perfect trails are not. In the times I have hiked I have seen people well down the trails in sneakers, running shoes, sandals, flip-flops, and on one occasion, even bare feet. So the walking surface can't be that bad. I myself find the trails fairly easy to walk. Actually, by making the trail surfaces too easy to hike the park service may be creating the additional problem of encouraging some hikers to go beyond their capabilities.
Xanterra, the South Rim mule concessionaire, already provides some personnel to assist with trail maintenance. I have heard the company offered the park service additional help, but the service rebuffed the offer. So one is left to wonder about the service's real motivations.
I have thought that the Plateau Point mule rides were perhaps the best in the park. They offered riders a chance to get well down into the Canyon and were an affordable alternative to the much more expensive Phantom Ranch trips. Rim rides just are not in the same class. I think the park service can allow a few daily Plateau rides with the trails and hikers surviving just fine.