RRFW Riverwire – Pandemic Used To Upend Grand Canyon River Management Plan; Your Comments Needed!
May 31, 2020
Grand Canyon National Park has just upended its Colorado River Management Plan, greatly expanding commercial concessionaire river use and trip sizes while doing little for do-it-yourself river runners.
In an email sent to a small handful of Flagstaff businesses, a National Park Service employee stated, “unprecedented times regarding the pandemic” have resulted in “some accommodations to both commercial and non-commercial river trips due to the suspension of river rafting associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.” At this time the accommodations are for 2020, 2021, and 2022.
Grand Canyon National Park closed its access to Colorado River rafting trips on March 24, 2020, as the global COVID-19 pandemic raced across the United States. While much of the Park has reopened, a phased reopening of the river is scheduled to begin on June 14, 2020.
The accommodations include enlarging group sizes on all concessionaire river trips from 32 to 38 people. This is not a minor matter, as larger group sizes will increase attraction site congestion and campsite impacts.
This change is a reversal of the 2006 Colorado River Management Plan which decreased concessionaire group sizes of 43 people to 32 people. The group size reduction was done to reduce destruction of park resources.
The 2006 reduction in concessionaire trip group size was based on actual use patterns that showed most concessionaire trips were in groups of 33 people or less. The concessionaires large 32 to 37-foot-long motorized tour boats have a capacity of from 18 to 23 people so there is no problem accommodating the increased group size.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing group sizes is not recommended by the Centers For Disease Control. The CDC recommends social groups not exceed ten people, especially for higher-risk populations including adults 65 years of age and older.
Highly communicable diseases spread easily on river trips. Every year, Noro-type viruses have crippled river trips in Grand Canyon. The Park Service has yet to release information about how river runners can or should protect themselves, their group, and other groups from the corona virus.
It is unclear if the National Park Service and the concessionaires are willing to ensure the safety of passengers traveling long distances in close quarters both getting to and travelling home from the river as well as on the river itself.
Concessionaire employees are also at risk. These seasonal employees work on the river and then do normal activities in regional towns, then work another river trip. While there are reporting requirements for Noro-type virus outbreaks on the river, there is no word from the NPS about reporting river related COVID-19 illness.
The river concessions websites list several practices put in place to protect clients, including daily temperature testing, frequent hand washing, and facemask use.
River trip impacts are measured in many ways, including “user days,” a term which counts one person camping along the river for one night. The increase in group size has the potential to increase the concessionaire’s user days over the 2020, 2021, and 2022 seasons by a potential 116,400 user days.
Additional concessionaire “accommodations” include 45 new commercial launches. Fifteen of these new trips of up to 38 people per day will occur in the first half of April. Fifteen more will occur in the second half of September, with another set of 15 new trips of up to 38 people allowed in October. The 45 new river trips will be added to the approximately 600 river trips the concessionaires run each year.
The new launches and expanded group size increase the concessionaire use to a maximum of 162,000 additional user days over the next two and a half years. During the 2020 closure at Grand Canyon National Park to keep river visitors safe, the river concessions lost a potential of 92,800 user days though actual losses were less as most river trips were not full.
Before this increase was announced, the river concessionaires annual use averaged about 107,000 user days a year. The new accommodations increase their user day potential by over 50%. The financial gain to this heavily subsidized oligopoly could easily be over $30 million.
Do-it-yourself river runners did not fare nearly as well. The NPS accommodations for the do-it-yourself river runners only recovers a potential of 12,000 user days of the potential 28,000 user days lost during the closure.
The do-it-yourself accommodations come in the form of new 8-person river trips, 15 in the month of March and 15 in October. This will increase the potential user days in the 2-and-a-half-year period by 12,000 user days, an overall loss of 16,000 user days.
The companies in Flagstaff that rent river gear, provide food packs, and shuttle do-it-yourself river trips charge about $120 a night per person for their services. Those companies will lose almost $2 million, even with the National Park Service accommodations.
This so-called accommodation to the do-it-yourself river running public explodes any claim of equality in user day numbers between concessionaire and do-it-yourself river runners. It also upsets any claim the 2006 Colorado River Management Plan made about having user day equality as a goal.
Demand for do-it-yourself river trips has increased every year since a lottery to distribute their permits was implemented in 2006. In February of 2020, almost 8,000 lottery applicants tried their luck competing for roughly 480 coveted do-it-yourself permits.
The do-it-yourself river runners float through Grand Canyon every month of the year. In the winter months, there are roughly 1,200 do it yourself river runners in the canyon and there are no concessions river trips. In the summer, there are about 2,000 do-it-yourself river runners and 15,000 concessionaire passengers.
The National Park Service made no attempt to address longstanding issues the do-it-yourself river running community has.
While the river concessions received a substantial group size increase, that same accommodation was not offered to the do-it-yourself trips. Increasing do-it-yourself group sizes by just two people would increase the standard do-it-yourself trip size from 16 people to 18 people, and the small trip size from 8 people to 10 people. This simple change would have more than made up for the entire user day loss that occurred in the 2020 closure.
Additional accommodations could improve systemic issues with the river management plan. One simple change would be to remove the one-trip-a-year rule in the winter months.
Yet another vexing issue that could be addressed to improve do-it-yourself access bans permit holders from passing their trip off to another if they can’t go.
An arcane regulation called the potential alternative trip leader program has blocked river trips from launching when their permit holder has died or been seriously injured just days before launch. Simple modifications to this regulation would ensure do-it-yourself river trips make it to the put in.
These long-standing glitches in the NPS treatment of do-it-yourself users could have been fixed as a true accommodation to address river issues in this difficult time.
The substantial accommodations made to the river concessionaires raises a more troubling issue.
The 2006 Colorado River Management Plan required a fully funded Monitoring and Mitigation Plan to ensure the resource was not impaired. This monitoring plan has not been operational or funded for over ten years. The National Park Service has not provided any review outlining the environmental impact to the Colorado River corridor due to this COVID-19 accommodation.
It is unclear how future pandemic trends may impact Colorado River trip bookings. Managing a river by greatly increasing concessionaire access with no way to foresee future pandemic trends or ecological damage flies in the face of best management practices to prevent impairment of park resources.
Grand Canyon deserves the best we can come up with, not a haphazard plan carried out with no formal approach or comment from the public. Instead, the team that came up with these accommodations was apparently made up of agency, concessionaire and Trade association insiders.
Do-it-yourself river runners have a crucial viewpoint on how the public gets to visit the unmatched resource of the Grand Canyon. River Management plans are put in place to ensure that our precious National Park resources are protected while being equitably enjoyed by the public. The unprecedented situation we find ourselves in with the Coronavirus may call for the NPS to help businesses recover – but not at the cost of overturning the very management plan put in place to protect the Grand Canyon. This action sets a bad precedent and needs to be closely examined.
All river runners are encouraged to write their thoughts about these changes directly to:
National Park Service Director David Vela
Main Interior Building 1849 C Street N. W., Washington, D.C. 20240
The Park has just welcomed a new Superintendent. Although he may not be familiar with the long history and intricacies of river management issues, river runners are encouraged to send Superintendent Ed Keable a copy of your comments, in order to provide him with the wide perspective needed for his work on this and future Park operations.
Superintendent Ed Keable
PO Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023
Representative Raul Grijalva has proven himself to be a champion in Congress on Grand Canyon matters. As the Chair of the House Resources Committee, he has the opportunity to exercise Congressional oversight of how Grand Canyon National Park is managed for the benefit of its environment and its visiting public. Representative Grijalva should be copied as well.
Raul Grijalva, Chairman, House Natural Resources Committee
1324 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515
Please let Director Vela, Superintendent Keable, and Chairman Grijalva know our National Parks are not to be sacrificed for special interest favoritism during a National pandemic. Please share this information widely and encourage your boating friends to act!
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