Desert scents, released by the night’s rain, permeate the narrow walls of Ventana Canyon and fill my nostrils with the heady fragrance of wet creosote and paloverde. My friend, Laurie Lee, and I climb rock-laden slopes in soft early light, chattering the full gamut of guys, kids, friends, parents, work and travel. A special topic takes precedent this morning – the meetings of the preceding day and the formation of the Grand Canyon River Runners Association (GCRRA), of which I have been selected as a founding Board member.
GCRRA has been formed as a response to the pending release of the Colorado River Management Plan (CRMP). This is a visitor use management plan that specifies actions to “preserve park resources while enhancing recreational opportunities in the river corridor.” The plan is designed to establish goals and objectives for the next decade and beyond. Specifically, the CRMP is set to determine – appropriate levels of visitor use consistent with preservation practices, allocation of that use between concessionaires and private boaters, continued use of motorized rafts, alternatives to the non-commercial permit system, a decision on the range of services, i.e., type of trip and trip length available to the public, and continued use of helicopters to transport river passengers.
The first River Use Plan was developed for Grand Canyon in 1972 and was the subject of two lawsuits in 2000-2001. The current effort to update the CRMP began in 2002 with public scoping sessions held across the country. More than 55,000 individual comments have been recorded, and the National Park Service has done detailed analytical research, run computer simulations to test alternatives, and incorporated the scoping input into a number of planning alternatives.
The reason for the creation of GCRRA and my involvement is that the bulk of those 55,000 comments came from an extremely well organized group of private boaters and their supporters who want to shift user allocation away from the licensed outfitters to their own use. They have waged a highly successful campaign, enlisting the aid of the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society.
I find myself in a unique position, as a member of both of those organizations, yet on the other side of their arguments. What’s at stake, truly, is the ability of the general public to continue to enjoy current levels of access to a treasured resource, the river corridor of the Grand Canyon.
One of the thornier issues is the desire to increase the wilderness status of the Grand Canyon, an issue that has been mired in policy and management debates since the 1970s. Wilderness designation requires that land be free of the handprint of mankind and its use, something not possible since the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, and the resulting modifications to the ecosystem within the Canyon.
One of the main targets of those desiring wilderness status is the continued use of motorized rafts. While it would seem to anyone who knows me, that this is an issue that I would likely support, my experience is that motor invasiveness in the canyon is over exaggerated. Five years ago, members of the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association voluntarily replaced all two-stroke with environmentally-friendly, quiet and nearly emission free, four-stroke engines.
On a deeper philosophical level, what motorized raft usage provides is an expanded ability for the vast majority of the public to enjoy a river trip. Trip lengths of less than one week can be booked, thus a family with limited time and resources can experience and benefit from a journey in the canyon. Today, three out of four professionally outfitted passengers depend on motorized access. To reduce motorized use could cut the current level of passengers desiring and able to book those trips from 19,000 annually to perhaps as few as 8,000.
The other looming management issue is the extended waiting list for private boater permits. GCRRA’s position is that the system is broken, needs to be repaired, but not at the expense of the broader spectrum of the general public. The fact remains, that the bulk of the population has neither the white water expertise, nor the equipment to outfit and run a trip of their own down the Grand Canyon
GCRRA’s founding Board consists of seven members: Dwight Sherwood, Linda Kahan, Mari Carlos, Pam Whitney, Ruthie Stoner, Robert McConnell, and myself. We come from far reaches of the country and bring unique skill sets to the organization. What we share is a passionate love for rafting in the Grand Canyon, and a desire that the same experience remains available to you, your families and all of your friends.
To learn more about the organization and find out ways in which you can participate to secure the broadest spectrum of river travel options in the Grand Canyon, explore our website: http://www.gcrra.org.
Originally published Coastline Pilot/LA Times