Grand Canyon Wilderness Legislation: It’s About Time

Background:

Over 1.1 million acres of wilderness-suitable Grand Canyon National Park land remains outside the National Wilderness Preservation System.  Increased helicopter traffic in the western Grand Canyon, continued motorized commercial tour boat activity with the dominance of commercial river concessions services in the primary summer season, and increased tourism pressure from Southern Utah, threaten to erode the very wilderness character that defines the wild heart of Grand Canyon National Park.

Grand Canyon National Park (GRCA) staff conducted a Wilderness Recommendation study with public comment and hearings conforming to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) guidelines beginning in 1975. This process included Draft and Final Environmental Impact Studies. On December 29, 1976, The Wilderness Recommendation was signed by National Park Service Director Gary Everhardt. This Recommendation was forwarded to the Office of the President.

 Between 1977 and 1979, Grand Canyon National Park followed NEPA guidelines in drafting a wilderness river management plan that included a 5-year phase-out of motorized tour-boats. In 1981, the river concessionaires managed to overturn the entire river plan with the assistance of the new Secretary of Interior James Watt and the young freshman Senator Orin Hatch. The replacement river plan of 1981 allowed for the continued use of motorized tour boats. The Wilderness Recommendation of 1977, reworked in 1980, was never moved to Congress.

In 1993, Grand Canyon National Park updated the Wilderness Recommendation with an internal document incorporating lands that had since been acquired by the park, and noted that the river was “recommended for designation as potential wilderness, pending resolution of boundary and motorized riverboat issues.”

Thirteen years later, in 2006, under George Bush appointee Gale Norton, the park finalized a new river plan that continued to allow motorized tour boat concessions to operate. This river plan was immediately challenged in court. A 9th Circuit decision on the litigation ruled that the Park has discretion in river management planning. The court did not rule on the legitimacy of the plan, only that the Park has discretion to manage as they see fit. This litigation failed to clarify the Park’s requirement to manage the river as wilderness before Congress passes a wilderness bill for the Park.  

Our Foundational Grand Canyon Wilderness Position:

We propose protection of Grand Canyon Wilderness through legislation with a public citizen’s wilderness recommendation , including the 220 miles of Colorado River from Navajo Bridge to Diamond Creek, as a motor-free wilderness. This 220 mile unbroken stretch of river is unique in the entire lower 48 states for its lack of either a riverside roadway or railroad.

A standalone citizen’s wilderness bill, based in large part on the Park’s own wilderness recommendation, is the place to start. The river would be identified as being motor-free as of a definite date, allowing sufficient time for a transition to oar powered river travel. Ten years should be more then sufficient to introduce this change. This position would not leave the river in limbo, as it has been for over thirty years, with the vague river management language stating the river will be “recommended for designation as potential wilderness, pending resolution of boundary and motorized riverboat issues.”

This proposal would incorporate the 2006 river plan study showing that managing the river as wilderness without motorized tour boats will add jobs and substantially benefit the regional economy.  Removing motorized tour boats and helicopter passenger exchanges will also decrease the carbon footprint of river recreation.

If you'd like to join us in this crucially important work, please contact either Tom Martin at tommartin@rrfw.org or Jo Johnson at jojohnson@rrfw.org