Grand Canyon growing pains
River runner group seeks end to motor rigs, permit system

The sun sets behind the cliffs overlooking one of the many sandy beaches along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The National Park Service is currently
revamping the Colorado River Management Plan, the document that governs use along the river in the canyon. One private boater group is calling for increased public access, wilderness designation and an end to motorized
craft./Photo by Missy Votel.

More than 130 years ago, John Welsey Powell led nine men down the uncharted waters of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon – a trip so treacherous that three expedition members hiked out rather than face the river’s wrath. And while Powell may have had trouble recruiting volunteers, today there are more than enough to go around.

At last count, there were some 8,200 people waiting to secure a private launch date, and according to the National Park Service, newcomers can expect to wait about 20 years for their number to come up.

And while some see the quarter-century wait as just a law of supply and demand, one group has dedicated itself to changing the permit allocation system, one which they say favors commercial outfitters and the rich while degrading the corridor’s wilderness qualities.

According to Tom Martin, co-founder of River Runners for Wilderness, a Flagstaff-based nonprofit group dedicated to obtaining wilderness status for Grand Canyon National Park and overhauling the permit system, a typical guided commercial trip costs more than six times that of a private trip.

“It costs between $275 and $325 a day on a commercial trip, versus an average of $45 a day for a private trip,” he said. Speaking to the exclusive nature of commercial trips, he added: “Half of the passengers on commercial trips make up the top 12 percent of the country’s earners.”

Take a number

For the remaining percentage, the option is to take a number and wait, he said. However, under the National Park Service permit system, only one-third of all river-user days are allocated to private river runners, with two-thirds going to the commercial outfitters.

And this is what rankles Martin and members of his group.

“The waiting list is so long, those at the bottom of the list will wait an incredible 20 years,” he said. “The vast majority of permits go out to commercial concessionaires, and the boating public is left behind with no reasonable access. What is at stake is public access to the greatest river trip in the world.”

According to Martin, who worked as a commercial river guide for several years and has authored Grand Canyon guide books, the goal of his group is not to do away with commercial trips but to ensure “fair and equitable wilderness access.” Martin acknowledges that wilderness designation would likely mean an end to motor rigs in the canyon. However, he thinks banning motors is a “no brainer” when it comes to preserving a natural wonder like the Grand Canyon.

“There’s only one Colorado River and Grand Canyon,” he said. “There’s nothing like it in the world.”

And while the prospect of prohibiting motor rigs may be wildly unpopular among commercial outfitters, Martin said he thinks it will barely make a ripple among the river-running public.

“Studies have proven that the public, when given an option, prefer oar trips over motorized ones,” he said. “Nobody is saying motor trips are better.”

As far as the permitting process goes, Martin’s group is proposing one that would “front load” the system, whereby people would secure permits and then decide from there whether they would like to hire a company to guide them or do it themselves.

“It would follow the demand of the public, permit for permit,” he said, adding that a similar system is in place – and successful – in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota.

And with the Colorado River Management Plan – the document governing use of the river through the Grand Canyon – up for revisal, now is the time for river runners to unite, according to Martin.

“We’re canvassing the country,” he said, adding that Colorado has the highest number of people on the private launch waiting list. “We’re trying to drive home the message and get people to write their congressmen and participate in the management plan.”

More ways to get a Grand fix...
Tim Martin, author of Day Hikes From the River: A Guide to 100 Hikes from Camps on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon and founder of River Runners for Wilderness, will present a free slideshow and Grand Canyon management plan update on Sunday, Nov. 30, at 6:30 p.m. at the Abbey Theatre.

The slideshow will be followed by an 8:30 p.m. screening of “The Same River Twice,” an award-winning documentary that revisits a group of Grand Canyon river guides 20 years after a pivotal monthlong trip down the canyon.

The film, by Rob Moss, follows a free-spirited group of friends and lovers on a month-long trip down the Colorado River. Cutting between footage of their youthful, often naked, unscheduled lives and the complex realities of their adulthood today, the film creates a compelling portrait of cultural metamorphosis. From running rapids to running for mayor, “The Same River Twice” is a story of change, choices and finding one’s place in the world.

The event is sponsored by River Runners for Wilderness, Weminuche Chapter of the Sierra Club, Taxpayers for the Animas, and the Abbey Theatre. For more information call 385-1711.

In defense of motors

At least one river-user group doesn’t see eye to eye with River Runners for Wilderness. The Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association, which is made up of 16 commercial companies running trips in the canyon, does see a need to protect the Grand Canyon and find an end to the controversy, but it takes issue with some of Martin’s goals.

For starters, the group would like to see wilderness designation for the Grand Canyon with the exception of the river corridor, which it sees as a main access route to the backcountry. Furthermore, the group asserts that motor rigs do not adversely impact the environment.

“Motorized use is transitory in nature and does not harm or negatively impact the resources,” the group states on its web site. If the practice was harmful, it argues, then it would have become apparent over the last 50 years of motorized use. However, wilderness advocates maintain that the corridor is suitable for wilderness, which can only mean “motorized use has not diminished 85 wilderness character.”

The outfitter’s group also turns Martin’s access argument on its head, pointing out that three out of four commercial passengers depend upon motorized craft for their trips.

“Such motorized access is essential in order to provide the current level of public access,” the group states, adding that a ban on motorized craft could drastically decrease public availability of commercial trips.

“The number of passengers able to take these trips could be reduced from 19,000 to as little as 8,000 or 9,000 annually,” the group writes.

The outfitters association also points to its environmental stewardship record as a defense. According to the group, five years ago, members began changing over from two-stroke engines to cleaner and quieter four-stroke engines. The group also has launched a research project, with the intent of eventually developing an electric, zero-emissions motor. 4

As far as permits go, the outfitter association advocates a “Real People/Real Trip Dates” system whereby private boaters reserve a specific date for a specific number of people and specific number of days. The group predicts that the reservation system, which is based on travel industry practices, coupled with an increase in allocations, could produce an average wait for a private trip of 12 to 20 months.

“A reservations-based management model offers great promise to provide access to the Grand Canyon river experience for the self-guided river trip participant on par with what professionally outfitted patrons currently enjoy,” the group states.

Changing the system

And while both sides of the motor rig issue argue their cases, the National Park Service will have the final say in the matter.

According to Linda Jalbert, recreation wilderness planner at Grand Canyon National Park, the management plan is still in the environmental impact study phase.

“We are currently working on the impact analysis of alternatives as required by (the National Enivironmental Protection Act),” she said.

A scoping period to gauge public opinion on the new management plan was held last summer, including public meetings in Denver, Flagstaff and Salt Lake City. The resulting draft EIS is expected by early next year, which will be followed by another comment period and more public meetings. The final EIS will be released at the end of 2004.

“The draft EIS is a critical step,” she said. “That is where we go to the public and look for public comment.”

Although Jalbert couldn’t specify what alternatives are being discussed for the management plan, she did say that the Parks Service is analyzing lower-use alternatives as well as a non-motorized alternative and a “do-nothing” alternative, as required by law. She said that last summer’s scoping process netted more than 50,000 comments from more than 15,000 people. And while the comments were all over the board, she said there was consensus on the failure of the permit system.

“The general feeling was that we need to change the system, it’s pretty unpopular,” she said. “We just don’t know what we’re going to change it to.”

And while parties on both sides of the issue await the final decision, they expressed optimism over the ability to reach an amicable resolution.

“Those who have been down the river realize the comradeship among the groups, often helping one another if need be,” the outfitters association wrote. “Yet in addressing the allocation issue and the issue of access for private boaters, we all must appreciate that the NPS must manage 85 in the overall public interest.”

Likewise, Martin, with River Runners for Wilderness, expressed hope in finding common ground and improving the contentious situation.

“We are problem solvers,” he said. “Given half a chance, we can do way better.”






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