River Management 1990-2000, Wilderness Rekindled

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1990-2000: THE PARK SERVICE RENEWS ITS EFFORTS TO PROTECT THE COLORADO RIVER CORRIDOR’S WILDERNESS CHARACTER AND ANNOUNCES PREPARATION OF A NEW RIVER MANAGEMENT PLAN

On June 25, 1990 the Park Service’s Chief of Resource Management drafted a memorandum to the Superintendent of the Grand Canyon. In the memo, the Park Service notes that the 1989 CRMP “does not address wilderness constraints. Several current activities, particularly crowding and congestion, helicopter exchanges at Whitmore, and the administrative use of motorboats appear to contradict the intent of wilderness management policy. The appropriateness of continued existing use levels of concessionaires’ motorboats will probably be decided by Congress.”

On October 22, 1991 the Park Service’s Wilderness Coordinator sent a memo to the Superintendent regarding the attainment or non-attainment of wilderness values in the proposed wilderness areas, including the Colorado River corridor, in the Grand Canyon.

The Park Service’s Wilderness Coordinator notes that the “legal obligation to protect wilderness resources is based upon Public Law 93-620 . . .and the specific requirements of NPS Management Policies regarding proposed wilderness . . .Although the goals of the 1976 Master Plan and the 1979 Colorado River Management Plan (CRMP) called for management of the river corridor as wilderness, subsequent CRMPs have excluded wilderness as a management consideration. The result has been an incremental erosion of wilderness resources, particularly the experimental aspects . . . Consequently, the NPS has not fulfilled the agency’s responsibilities of wilderness protection, resulting in degradation of wilderness values along the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park. Since 1977 (the wilderness recommendation deadline specified by Congress) these impacts to wilderness values include: (1) a 76% increase in the total number of visitors; and a 67% increase in total user-day allocation; (2) Approximately 500% increase in helicopter exchanges with no environmental compliance on impacts to the visistor experience or GRCA natural and cultural resources . . .(3) Installation of cable cars at three locations and other ‘semi-permanent’ devices . . .(4) Exacerbation of crowding through implementation of ‘user-day pools’ for the commercial and a ‘double-launch’ schedule for the private users . . .(5) Non-compliance with NPS ‘minimum tool’ policies for proposed wilderness. . .(6) Impacts of large numbers of river runners on backcountry hikers at beaches and attraction sites . . .[and] (7) Continued experimental impacts resulting from aircraft use over the proposed wilerness of GRCA.”

The Park Service’s Wilderness Coordinator went on to state that “the Park Service is required to manage all proposed wilderness (potential and recommended/study) as Wilderness.”

On March 6, 1992 the Park Service’s Wilderness Coordinator drafted a memorandum about the Park Service’s wilderness management policy. In the memo, the Park Service states that the “Colorado River was recommended as potential wilderness, based on the assumption that the existing nonconforming use, in this case motorized concession trips, would be eliminated in 1985. The Park Service recommended that at the time the nonconforming use was eliminated, the river [would] become designated wilderness.”

The Park Service states that they are to manage all potential wilderness areas like the Colorado River corridor “as wilderness.” and also states that it is to “seek to eliminate the temporary conditions that precluded wilderness designation.”

On March 25, 1992 the Superintendent of the Grand Canyon sent a memorandum to the Park Service’s Wilderness Coordinator. In the memo, the Superintendent states that the Colorado River corridor remains a “potential addition to the Grand Canyon wilderness.” The Superintendent states that the “non¬conforming use identified in the 1980 Wilderness Recommendation was motorboat use that was to be phased out by 1985. Since 1980, additional non-conforming uses that contradict the intent of wilderness management policy have either developed or increased.”

These “non-conforming uses consist of . . .cable crossing for research purposes, increases in motorized traffic, increases in helicopter exchanges, non-emergency administrative use of motorboats, and exacerbation of crowding and congestion through user day pools.”

The 1993 Update to the 1980 Wilderness Recommendation

In 1993, the 1980 Wilderness Recommendation was updated to reflect boundary adjustments and address the dispute over the motorized use of the Colorado River corridor. The Colorado River corridor was included in the 1993 Wilderness Recommendation as “potential wilderness.”

In the 1993 Wilderness Recommendation, the Park Service notes that “the current levels of motorized boat use probably contradict the intent of wilderness designation [and] . . . is inconsistent with the wilderness criteria of providing outstanding opportunities for solitude and for a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”

The 1993 “Final Wilderness Recommendation was . . .submitted to the director. As far as we know, it was never forwarded to the Secretary.”

On May 10, 1994 the Superintendent of Grand Canyon sent a memo to the Regional Director of the National Park Service regarding clarification of the Hatch Amendment on Park management. In the memo, the Superintendent states that the “Colorado River is recommended as ‘potential wilderness’ and, according to NPS Policies . . .should be managed as wilderness until the wilderness legislative process is completed.” The provisions in the Hatch Amendment “appear to contradict the intent of the 1964 Wilderness Act . . .and the 1975 Grand Canyon Enlargement Act. As far as we know, the Hatch provisions have not been specifically repeated in subsequent appropriations bills or other legislation.”

1994 Wilderness Task Force

On September 3, 1994 the Park Service’s “Wilderness Task Force” published a “Report on Improving Wilderness Management in the National Park Service.”

In the Report, the Park Service notes that under the Wilderness Act, “no commercial enterprise is allowed . . .however, commercial services (e.g., guide services) can be permitted to the extent necessary for realizing purposes of wilderness recreation.”

In the Report, the Park Service states that “generally, with exceptions authorized for emergency or minimal administrative needs, no use can be made of motor vehicles or motorized equipment or motorboats (the pre-existing use exception for the Forest Service does not apply to the Dept of Interior units).”

On September 26, 1994 the Superintendent sent a memo to the Division Chiefs on the status of wilderness in the Grand Canyon. In the memo, the Superintendent states that he will “manage park lands according to the 1993 Wilderness Recommendation. This means lands which were ‘recommended for immediate designation’ will be managed as defacto wilderness and lands which were ‘recommended for designation as ‘potential wilderness’ will be managed as potential wilderness.”

On November 4, 1994 the Director of the Park Service issued a memo to all Superintendents on implementing the recommendations of the 1994 Wilderness Task Force Report. The Director stated that “NPS areas under study or recommended to Congress for wilderness designation must be planned and managed as wilderness unless such time as Congress decides otherwise.”

On November 14, 1994 the Park Service prepared a paper on the history and interim of wilderness management for the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. The Park Service notes that throughout “the 10 year wilderness and river management planning process, river running concessionaires consistently opposed the removal of motors on the river, primarily for economic reasons. The larger motorized craft provided significantly higher profitability through a lower staff-customer ratio, a shorter trip, and a resulting higher economic value userday. While concern for safety was given as a principal reason for continuing motorized use, this argument was unsubstantiated.”

The Park Service noted in its November 14, 1994 paper that the “Hatch Amendment was a successful backdoor attempt to circumvent a legitimate public involvement process for economic benefit of a special interest group, the river concessioners.”

On February 1, 1995 the Director of the Park Service issued Special Directive 95-2 to “reemphasize and clarify” the Park Service’s obligations with respect to managing potential wilderness areas such as the Colorado River corridor. In the Special Directive, the Director notes that it is “the policy of the NPS that land classified [as potential wilderness be] . . .managed so as not to impair its wilderness characteristics until Congress decides the fate of these areas.”

Pursuant to the Special Directive, all “planning for these areas must be oriented toward ensuring the preservation of their wilderness character.” All potential wilderness areas “will be managed under the provisions of the Wilderness Act and NPS policies to maintain wilderness characteristics and values until Congress decides on the potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.”

The 1995 General Management Plan

In 1995, the Park Service issued a General Management Plan (“GMP”) for the Grand Canyon. Pursuant to the 1995 GMP, the Park Service is to “protect the natural quiet and solitude” of the Grand Canyon and “manage areas meeting the criteria for wilderness designation as wilderness.”

The GMP “treats all proposed wilderness areas as wilderness” and states that the Park will be managed in accordance with the Park Service’s “1993 wilderness proposal.”

With respect to the Colorado River corridor, the GMP directs the Park Service to “protect and preserve the resource in a wild and primitive condition” and ensure that all management plans for the Colorado River be “consistent with NPS wilderness policy requirements.” The Park Service’s GMP states that all actions and all future plans such as “the Colorado River Management Plan . . .will be consistent with NPS wilderness policy requirements.”

In May, 1996 the Park Service’s resource management specialist and wilderness coordinator for the Grand Canyon published a paper on wilderness management at the Grand Canyon. In the paper, the resource management specialist states that the Park Service’s “extensive public review process [for the Colorado River] and the existing NPS planning documents” do not permit motorized uses to continue. The Park Service’s policies state that “[p]ublic use of motorized equipment or any form of mechanical transport will be prohibited in wilderness except as provided for in specific legislation.” The Park Service also states that strict interpretation of the Wilderness Act supports pre-1965 use, not subsequent motorized levels, as established use. The Park Service notes that total river use was “about 550 people” in 1964.

In 1995, the Park’s wilderness coordinator wrote that, noncommercial boaters represent “a broad spectrum of the ‘general public’ which has a much more difficult time obtaining a river trip than the commercial passenger who can generally purchase a trip for the summer season.” In 1998, the Park Service announced its intent to revise the 1989 CRMP.

1998 CRMP

The new, revised “Colorado River Management Plan will attempt to bring the Service back into compliance by addressing wilderness management responsibilities and the need to accommodate the public within this world class resource.”

On March 13, 1998, the Park Service received an e-mail regarding how to make the permit allocation for the Colorado River corridor more fair and equitable. The e-mail notes that “[c]ommercial pricing is too high. This has limited its demand and created excess supply. Private costs are so low they create truly infinite demand far above the available supply. . . The commercial owners are monopolists who control their prices (the NPS is supposed to review them but has no rewards system for keeping prices low). These owners . . . have been given a very rewarding situation with no effective controls so they price to keep demand below supply knowing there won’t be any competitors. Their customers then become an elite cross section of America who can best afford their services at any price. The commercial sector milks those who can afford to pay, denying access to those who can’t, through high prices. Naturally, their affluent customers don’t want to be inconvenienced. Naturally, they don’t want to launch on weekends to minimize their lost earnings and use helicopters to speed up their trip. Those who aren’t doctors, lawyers, or other highly paid professionals then must seek out and find the private sector to acquire access.”

The e-mail also notes that as “more and more people become familiar with private non-commercial rafting they recognize it as a great bargain and everyone wants a piece of it. This demand manifests itself in a huge backlog of people on a wait list who want to organize a low cost private trip because it is the only way they can go. They have no other option because they can’t afford a commercial trip. The question during this CRMP review becomes which sector best serves the public while protecting the resource. The answer seems obvious. The private sector is the most egalitarian, it is the people’s boating. Unfortunately, it also has the least connections and support in Congress and the Administration. Why are we surprised that the commercial sector, which serves the movers and shakers, has the best access to politicians and can even intimidate the NPS?”

On October 12, 1998, the Park Service issued a “Issue and Policy Analysis” on the protection of wilderness suitability and the use of motorized rafts on the Colorado River within Grand Canyon National Park. In this analysis, the Park Service states that the authority in section 4 (d)(1) of the Wilderness Act with respect to established uses “was not extended to the Secretary of the Interior.” The Park Service determined that in “the absence of a document motor-phase out plan, the continuation of the “Potential Wilderness” classification for the river corridor in the Park Wilderness Recommendation was not consistent with the intent of the Wilderness Act to prohibit motorized use in National Park Wilderness areas, nor was it consistent with NPS policy to seek to eliminate public uses that would be inconsistent with future Wilderness designation. The failure of the NPS to remedy this problem has continued and intensified the outstanding issue of the use of motors within the area included in the Grand Canyon National Park Wilderness Recommendation.”

The Park Service notes that the “Colorado River Management planning process conducted between 1976 and 1979 culminated in a publicly supported plan to phase out the use of motors on the river by 1985. The largest Grand Canyon river concession outfitters who prefer to offer only motorized river trips were not in favor of this plan and were able to convince Senator Hatch to attach a rider to the FY1981 Interior Appropriations Bill. This action together with similar pressures from Secretary of Interior, convinced the NPS to rewrite the plan and drop all wilderness dependent provisions.”

The Park Service notes that it “was unfortunate that the many citizens that supported the motor phase out during the public involvement process were not allowed the opportunity to equally affect the political process.”

The Park Service notes that the “newly formed Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association (GCROA), has strengthened the ability of the outfitters to [a]ffect the political process.”

On October 26, 1998 the Superintendent drafted a memo to the Associate Director of Park Operations and Education. In the memo, the Superintendent states that section 4 (d)(1) of the Wilderness Act, which creates special provisions for the Secretary of Agriculture to allow motorboats under certain conditions “clearly does not convey the same authority to the Secretary of Interior. Departmental and NPS policy require that NPS areas recommended for wilderness be managed as designated wilderness until such time as Congress acts on the recommendation.”

In 1999, the Park Service Director issued Director’s Order 41: Wilderness Preservation and Management (Director’s Wilderness Order) in order “to provide consistency and accountability” among Park Service wilderness management programs, “clarify policies and establish specific instructions and requirements” regarding wilderness management, and “guide Park Service efforts in meeting the letter and spirit of the Wilderness Act.”

Director’s Order 41 adopts Reference Manual 41

Pursuant to Director’s Order 41, the Park Service is to “ensure that wilderness resources are afforded maximum protection” by administering and “protect[ing] the wilderness resource.” With respect to potential wilderness areas such as the Colorado River corridor, the Park Service is to manage such areas “as wilderness to the extent that existing nonconforming uses will allow; temporary (non¬conforming) uses will be eliminated as soon as practicable in keeping with National Park Service authorities and budgets.”


Click here to go tp the next section of this history, called River Management 2000-2005, Wilderness Abandoned Yet Again.


Click here to return to The Politics of River Running in Grand Canyon page.