River Management 1970-1980, Strong on Wilderness
1970-1973: THE PARK SERVICE RELEASES THE FIRST RIVER MANAGEMENT PLAN AND IMPACT STATEMENT FOR THE COLORADO RIVER CORRIDOR
The 1972 River Use Plan
On December 11, 1972, the National Park Service (“Park Service”) released a River Use Plan for the Colorado River corridor in the Grand Canyon. In the River Use Plan, the Park Service called for the phase out of motorboat use of the Colorado River by 1977.
The Park Service based this phase out decision “on some preliminary sociological study results.” In addition to phasing out motors by 1977, the 1972 River Use Plan establishes strict standards for commercial boating, establishes a carry out policy for waste and trash, called for the completion of “ecological and sociological studies of the river and its environment, and announced plans to “recommend the status of potential wilderness for the Colorado River now, and achieve wilderness management standards in 1977.”
For commercial use, the River Use Plan allowed up to 89,000 commercial visitor use days. The goal of the Park Service “will be to achieve an annual visitor/use/day (commercial and private) level of 55,000 by the 1977 use season. This will also include a setting a maximum of 100 people leaving from Lees Ferry per day in parties whose maximum will be 30 persons.”
For non-commercial use, the River Use Plan allowed up to 7,600 noncommercial use days. The Park Service will allow “only one private party [to] depart each day from Lees Ferry. All private party use must be by advance reservation with the National Park Service, Grand Canyon National Park.”
The February 13, 1973 Draft Environmental Impact Statement
On February 13, 1973 the Park Service released a Draft Environmental Statement for “Proposed Establishment of Visitor Use Limits on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park.”
The goal of the Draft Environmental Statement is to “provide an opportunity for a quality, white water, wilderness experience, and at the same time, to protect the river environment from degradation.”
To achieve this goal, the Draft Environmental Statement called for a reduction in the number of user days and the elimination of motors by 1977.
In the Draft Environmental Statement, the Park Service stated that “use of motors pollutes the river with gasoline and oil, the air with smoke, and assaults the senses with sound and should be eliminated as soon as possible from the river environment. Their elimination will also qualify the river to be officially included in the wilderness areas of Grand Canyon National Park.”
The Park Service also stated that “[c]urrent levels of noise, congestion, pollution of air and water, litter, and other environmental insults will all be lowered by the proposed action [to lower user days and eliminate motors.] The propose[d] elimination of motorized trips will signal a marked improvement in the attitude of management’s approach to the river wilderness, as well as having a positive environmental impact.”
The Park Service’s decision to phase out motorboats in the Colorado River corridor by 1977 to protect and preserve the wilderness resource and reduce the amount of user days to commercial operators “caused some controversy.”
Arizona Congressman Sam Steiger, a personal friend of river concessionaire owner Fred Burke, “urged the [Park Service] to study the issue prior to any other action regarding the removal of motors from water craft on the Colorado.” In response, the Park Service decided to “have a study conducted motors on the river – the parameters of such a study to be agreed upon by the NPS and the boat concessionaires” and to “determine the feasibility of eliminating the use of all motors over 20 or 25 horse power immediately or in the near future.”
In 1973, a lawsuit (Western River Expeditions, Inc. v. Morton) was filed by the river concessioners to challenge the Park Service’s plan to phase out motorboat use of the Colorado River corridor. As a result of the lawsuit, “the NPS director deferred the decisions made in the [River Use Plan] and directed the Park to conduct research to determine social and ecological carrying capacity, and the impacts of motors.”
1973-1978: THE PARK SERVICE CAREFULLY STUDIES AND EVALUATES HOW BEST TO MANAGE THE COLORADO RIVER CORRIDOR IN THE GRAND CANYON
By July , the Colorado Research Program was underway. A total of  studies were done to gather data for the development of a comprehensive river management plan.”
The “Twenty-Nine” Studies
Approximately twenty-nine “ecological and social studies” on the carrying capacity of the Colorado River corridor and the use of motorized boats were completed in the mid-1970s. The twenty-nine studies reveal that oar and motor trips are “equally safe” and that the impacts to the Colorado River corridor’s wilderness character from motorized uses are significant.
In 1973 a study entitled “Sound-Level Evaluations of Motor Noise From Pontoon Rafts in the Grand Canyon” was published. The study found that “[m]otor noise . . .masks the natural sounds in the Canyon and, in contrast, its almost unnatural quiet. Although no effects on the boatman’s ability to function can be demonstrated, the noise levels border on those which have been shown to adversely affect performance of tasks of this type. For these reasons, it is recommended that the use of outboard motors in the canyon be either discontinued or substantially curtailed.”
The studies reveal that noise from motorized use of the Colorado River is inconsistent with wilderness values and adversely impacts the natural sounds of the Colorado River corridor. (“An Analysis of the Motor-Row Conversion Issue of Colorado River Float Trips”); (“Motors and Oars in the Grand Canyon. River Contact Study Part II)”; (“Findings, Conclusions, Recommendations, and Implications for Management: River Contact Study Final Report”); (“Environmental Management of the Colorado River within the Grand Canyon”); (“Contrasting recreational experiences: Motors and oars in the Grand Canyon”).
In terms of impacts to the wilderness experience (a key component of preserving wilderness) studies show that overall “non-motorized trips are more pleasing to the visitor.” Reasons “given suggest that oar travel is seen as more consistent with a natural or wilderness experience.”
Passengers “who had experience with both motor and oar trips preferred the oar trip. They enjoyed the slower pace, could relax; they become more aware of natural sounds in the canyon; they were able to observe more closely the unique features along the river and more easily ask questions of their guide."
The studies reveal there “is a strong indication that almost all those who have had the opportunity to experience both motor and oar trips prefer oar trips over motor trips.”
In one study – referred to as the “motor-oar experiment” – a combination motor/oar trip was devised on which passengers could experience both modes of transportation. Two “trips, one motor and one oar, were scheduled to leave Lee’s Ferry so they would meet halfway through the Canyon. There passengers left one set of boats and switched to the other, then continued to the debarkation point (Diamond Creek, mile 225). The combination trip took 9 days, 5 ½ by oar power and 3 ½ by motor”. To determine “overall trip preference,” the researchers asked passengers “which type of trip they would choose for another river, which they would recommend to a friend, and which better enabled them to experience the canyon, and which they liked better overall.” In response, 79 to 91 percent chose the oar trip while 4 to 6 percent chose the motor trip. People with both kinds of experiences clearly preferred oar travel.”
Studies show that oar trips (non-motorized) are as safe or safer than motorized trips, showing lower risk of fatality on oar-powered rafting trips.
In 1976 “six workshops were held for public input on Colorado River management issues. By September 1976 the draft research findings were available for management review.”
The twenty-nine studies found that the impacts to the Colorado River corridor’s natural soundscape and wilderness character from motorized use are serious and severe.
The 1976 Master Plan for Grand Canyon.
In August, 1976 the Park Service issued a Final Master Plan for Grand Canyon National Park.
The 1976 Master Plan outlines the overall objectives and proposals for managing Grand Canyon National Park and states that the “goals for management of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon will be to perpetuate the wilderness river-running experience, and to attempt to mitigate the influences of man’s manipulation of the river.”
The Master Plan states that “mechanized access below the rims [of the Grand Canyon]” will be limited.
A year after adopting the Master Plan, the Park Service reiterated its decision to “ban motor use” in the Colorado River corridor to achieve the Master Plan’s goals.
The Park Service’s decision to ban motorized use of the Colorado River corridor was based on consideration of “relevant National Park policies, wilderness proposals, the park master plan, interpretation, noise, and research, as well as other considerations . . .” The Park Service stated that the “goals for management of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon as stated in the Master Plan are to perpetuate the wilderness riverrunning experience and to attempt to mitigate the influences of man’s manipulation of the river. To achieve this, all visitor use of this portion of the river will be without motors, and more nearly like the experience of earlier explorers.”
According to the Park Service, “a three-year study of the river with public participation has shown that visitor appreciation, understanding, and enjoyment of the Grand Canyon will be enhanced by [non-motorized] . . . use” of the Colorado River corridor.
As early as 1976, the Park Service found that “motorized boat use is not necessary for the use and enjoyment of this area but is a convenience which enables the trip to be made in less time and permits the use of large boats, accommodating larger groups. This use is inconsistent with the wilderness criteria of providing outstanding opportunities for solitude and for a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”
The 1977 Wilderness Recommendation
In February, 1977 the Park Service issued a Final Wilderness Recommendation. The 1977 Wilderness Recommendation included “two hundred seventy-seven miles of the Colorado River” – including the entire River corridor from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek – within Grand Canyon National Park as potential wilderness.
In the 1977 Wilderness Recommendation, the Park Service stated that “the river passes through some of the most scenic and primitive land remaining in this country.” The Recommendation stated that “motorized boat use is not necessary for the use and enjoyment of this area but a convenience which enables the trip to be made in less time and permits the use of large boats, accommodating larger groups. This use is inconsistent with the wilderness criteria of providing outstanding opportunities for solitude and for a primitive and unconfined type of recreation. It is proposed that the river corridor be designated a potential wilderness addition, pending finalization of the river management plan.”
In the 1977 Wilderness Recommendation, the Park Service noted the “response from individuals and organizations has been overwhelmingly in favor of the current [wilderness] proposal. Only 14 individuals out of 501, and 2 organizations out of 38, wanted less land designated as wilderness. A total of 431 individuals and 25 organizations recommended that hand-propelled, rather than motorized, craft be used on the river and that it be included as wilderness. Some 286 individuals and 25 organizations would further enlarge the area recommended for immediate wilderness by including all areas proposed as potential wilderness.
The Park Service noted that “13 companies [engaged in commercial river trips] were in favor of retaining motors, while 9 companies favored wilderness designation for the river and the elimination of motorized craft.”
The Park Service also stated that the designation of the Colorado River corridor as potential wilderness “will further protect one of the world’s most awesome natural wonders and ensure that future generations of Americans will have the same opportunities that we enjoy to witness its spectacular beauty.”
The Park Service stated that “studies over the past several years show that the use of motorboats on the Colorado River within the park is incompatible with overall visitor enjoyment and the resource management objectives of the park, and noted that the decision to ban motorboat use of the Colorado River corridor “was made . . .to comply with a Congressionally mandated wilderness recommendation.”
The 1977 Wilderness Recommendation “was held in abeyance by the DOI Legislative Counsel pending completion of the river management plan.” In January, 1978 the Park Service released a draft Colorado River Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement for public review and comment.
1979-1980: THE PARK SERVICE RELEASES A NEW COLORADO RIVER MANAGEMENT PLAN AND EIS CALLING FOR THE PHASE OUT OF MOTORBOATS TO PROTECT THE RIVER’S WILDERNESS CHARACTER
Following completion of the twenty-nine studies, a draft and final environmental impact statement, a public comment period, “seven public meetings,” and review of the 1977 Wilderness Recommendation, in December, 1979 the Park Service signed a final Colorado River Management Plan (“CRMP”).
The objective of the Final CRMP was to provide a “wilderness river-running experience in which the natural sounds, silence, sights, and full beauty of the can be experienced, relaxed conversation is possible, and the river is experienced on its own terms.”
“To accomplish this objective, the use of motorized boats from Lees Ferry to Separation Canyon will be phased out over a 5-year period.” Motorized boats will be phased out by 1985. The Park Service sought to improve visitor’s “wilderness experience” by eliminating motorized boat use.
The Park Service stated that “[s]tudies over the past several years show that the use of motorboats . . .is incompatible with overall visitor enjoyment and resource management objectives.”
The Park Service determined that the use “of motorized watercraft . . .will be phased out over a 5 year period. This will achieve the objective . . . to make available the high quality wilderness river-running experience.”
In the CRMP, the Park Service states that the plan to eliminate motorized watercraft use of the Colorado River corridor, “rather than representing an elitist choice among the possible means of enjoying the Grand Canyon, . . .is a plan to preserve and make available the fullness of the unique experience which the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon offers to the river runner. Among other provisions of the plan, the elimination of motor use will enhance the experience of wilderness without appreciably changing the demographic characteristics of river users or their total number.”
In the EIS for the CRMP, the Park Service noted that “[p]ollutants added to the river as a result of motorized travel include approximately 5,750 pounds of petroleum residue annually, as well as gasoline from leaking tanks and oil spills" and that “[m]otorized whitewater river trips are currently available on other sections of the Colorado River system, as well as on other western whitewater rivers.”
In the CRMP, the Park Service increases the annual use of the Colorado River corridor “both in numbers of people and user days.” The Park Service increased the user days for commercial concessionaires from 89,000 to approximately 115,500 during the five year phase out period. A user day is “any person in any part of the canyon for any part of the day.
The Park Service also increased the applicable river use ceilings in order to accommodate growing demand for self-guided access, which had increased from 7,600 to approximately 54,450 potential user days. In the CRMP, the Park Service allocated approximately 73% of the total number of user days available to the commercial concessionaires and approximately 27% of the total number of user days available to public non-commercial river-runners annually.
In the CRMP, the Park Service states that “to reduce crowding and congestion, keep related resource impacts at an acceptable level, and provide a quality river-running experience, the number of people launching is set at a fixed level of 65 per day for the summer season of 183 days. This includes two groups of 25 commercial passengers and one group of 15 non-commercial trip participants.”
In the EIS, the Park Service determined that “[r]apid irreversible physical and ecological changes are occurring in the riparian resources of the Colorado River as a result of the present visitor use levels and patterns. The irreversible changes are not necessarily a simple function of the total number of visitors, but more importantly, of use patterns and activities.”
In the EIS, the Park Service determined that “motor and oar trips were perceived as equally safe.” and that there “is strong indication that almost all those who have had the opportunity to experience both motor and oar trips prefer oar trips over motor trips.”
The Park Service noted that “[r]esearch has indicated that non-motorized trips are more pleasing to the visitor . . . Reasons given suggest that oar travel is seen as more consistent with a natural or wilderness experience.”
In the EIS, the Park Service states that “[u]nnatural sounds will continue to intrude upon the quiet of the canyon and create a disturbance for many users. Noises from low-flying aircraft, helicopters, and subsonic and supersonic airplanes are superimposed upon and mask the natural sounds.”
The CRMP established a waiting list for persons applying for permits required to access the Colorado River for non-commercial watercraft recreation and monitoring programs to continually assess changes in resource conditions and indicators such as visitor congestion, public demand, and visitor expectations.
The Park Service stated in the CRMP that its decision to phase out motorboat use of the Colorado River corridor by 1985 (over a 5 year period) “will achieve the objective of . . .mak[ing] available the high quality wilderness river-running experience which is inherently offered by the unique nature of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. This is also the objective the Grand Canyon National Park Master Plan for the Colorado River corridor, and corresponds with the park wilderness proposal.”
The Park Service states that its decision to phase out motorboat use in the CRMP is “based on the extensive Colorado River Research project for the Grand Canyon and considers public input from the two series of public meetings on river management.”
The 1980 Update to the 1977 Wilderness Recommendation
In 1980, the Park Service updated its 1977 Wilderness Recommendation. The 1980 Wilderness Recommendation includes a proposal to designate 980,088 acres within the Grand Canyon for preservation as wilderness. The proposal also includes an additional 131,814 acres of the Grand Canyon as “potential wilderness,” including the entire 226 mile stretch of the Colorado River, from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek (the upper gorge) and an additional 51 miles from Diamond Creek to Lake Mead (hereinafter “Colorado River corridor”).
The Colorado River corridor was “identified as a potential wilderness due to the existing motorized raft use.” The Park Service noted that motorized boat use is “inconsistent with the wilderness criteria of providing outstanding opportunities for solitude and for a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” The “river corridor would become wilderness upon phase-out of the use of motors.”
The Park Service determined that motorized use of the Colorado River is a non-conforming use. Non-conforming uses are “contrary to the definitions of wilderness [but are] . . . considered of a temporary nature which, once removed, should not preclude” wilderness designation).
The Colorado River corridor qualifies as “potential wilderness” because motorboat use can, and will, be phased out.
On September 11, 1980, the Director of the Park Service sent a memo to the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks confirming that the “Colorado River is recommended as potential wilderness. Under the River Management Plan, motorboat use will be phased out by January 1, 1985, at which time the river is recommended for wilderness designation.”
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