Issue 4, Winter 2003-04

Wild Land or Disneyland?

As though do-it-yourself river access weren't already limited at Grand Canyon National Park, Park Service officials have announced a "freeze" on accepting applications for river permits for those who don't want a large-sized, commercialized experience on one of the world's most sought-after wilderness rivers.

"The Grand Canyon is open for business, but not for the public to use," says Kim Crumbo, the Wilderness Coalition's Grand Canyon Regional Director and a former river runner and wilderness manager with Grand Canyon National Park. "This freeze on self-guided permits might as well be the Park saying that a theme-park experience on the Colorado--not its unique wilderness qualities--is all that matters."

The National Park Service (NPS) freeze applies only to those seeking a permit to run the river on self guided and mostly oar-powered trips, while commercial outfitters, who already hold a tight 70% of access to the river, are allowed to continue selling seats for their large motor trips. The current system of permitting has resulted in 20+ year waits for people seeking an authentic wilderness river experience.

Grand Canyon National Park is currently engaged in a planning process that will determine how recreational access for the Colorado River will be managed. Due in part to the tremendous popularity of the Grand Canyon itself and the unique opportunity to marvel at the hush and the rush of this wilderness river, the park has received more than 50,000 comments from the public. The Park Service has admitted that a high percentage of the comments indicate that the current allocation system is unfair, broken, and needs to be fixed.

"The Park Service's decision to stop taking applications for self guided trips while allowing commercial boaters to still sell seats is a baffling response to an already unfair system for allocating access to the river," says Donald Hoffman, Executive Director for the Arizona Wilderness Coalition. "It has become clear to everyone that the Park Service must overhaul the allocation system to allow more self guided trips. Placing a freeze on applications for self guided trips only adds insult to injury."

The Arizona Wilderness Coalition has developed an alternative for the Park that would split river access in half, giving private river runners a more equitable share of river running while also better preserving a quiet, more secluded wilderness experience for everyone. The Coalition's proposal would retain the permits already allocated to commercial outfitters and, at the same time, expand access opportunities for self-guided boaters by extending the river season in spring and fall. Read the resolution here.

Grand Canyon dories. Photos by Michael Powers.

The Coalition has presented its resolution to the Park Service to be considered in the Colorado River Management Planning process. Several other conservation groups have also provided alternative systems for allocating river use that provide greater balanced access while protecting the wilderness qualities of the river. Grand Canyon dories. Photo by Michael Powers. In past comment periods, public feedback to the Park regarding its current permitting system overwhelmingly called for a renovation of the ridiculously long wait for non-commercial runners. There are currently about 130,000 people waiting to go down the Colorado River in a private boat, and more than 1,000 more are typically added each year. Occasionally those waiting for a private boating experience die before their permit is called.

“So why add fuel to that fire?" says Jo Johnson, co-director for the Boulder-based group River Runners for Wilderness, who is quick to point out: "We want the Park to be thinking about changing the access and allocation method to one that reflects real public demand and shows no favoritism."

>Johnson brings up another point: "Freezing the waiting list removes an indicator of public demand for river trips, the only indicator the Park Service has. Now the park has no way of measuring demand at all. Vigorous advertising by commercial operators to fill trips and lack of demand for those same trips---many of which have gone unfilled the last few years---indicates an oversupply in their allocation. This is in huge contrast to the multi-year wait those 130,000 paddlers face.”

“This freeze tells a larger story, and quite a truthful one, about how the Bush Administration views our public land treasures,” says Rob Smith, Southwest Representative for the Sierra Club. “They throw open Yellowstone to motorized winter use, without regard for the non-motorized experience and wilderness character of that park. They act to prevent any future wilderness on BLM lands. They threaten new roads across Western public lands by turning over ancient rights of way to counties. Freezing river access at Grand Canyon is par for the course.”

The Park Service is scheduled to wrap up the CRMP in December 2004, pending no interference from the commercial boater industry. Commercial boaters have been lobbying to side-step the public planning process through a "legislative fix" that would guarantee their continued control of one of the finest wild river canyons left in the world.