Wilderness Groups Say "Historic Breakthrough" is Breakdown of Protection for Colorado River
**Beach Loss Ignored**
Phoenix-The Grand Canyon Wilderness Alliance, made up of more than a dozen conservation and river-running groups representing more than 1 million people, and the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club today denounced a plan by four river industry and recreational organizations to continue crowding the Colorado River at the expense of protecting the rare wilderness environment of Grand Canyon National Park.
The industry group announced that large, frequent river groups traveling primarily in polluting motorboats should continue and river use should continue beyond what is allowed currently by the National Park Service. They also contend that the park should increase the number of visitors along the river during the environmentally sensitive early spring and winter months, a time normally reserved for wildlife and ecological restoration. The four groups are led by the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association.
"These groups claim a 'historic breakthrough,' but their proposal only makes worse the current destructive pattern of wildlife disruption, vegetation trampling, and a crowding in what is supposed to be the National Park Service's premier wilderness river," says Kim Crumbo, a 30-year veteran of the canyon and former wilderness manager at the park.
The Grand Canyon Wilderness Alliance and the Sierra Club have been working collaboratively for three years on a solution for balancing visitor access to the river with the important obligation the park has to protect the exceptional wilderness attributes the canyon offers. These attributes include natural quiet and the absence of crowds on the river. The Arizona Wilderness Coalition introduced a resolution to the river problem formally to the Park Service last spring, before the agency even released its draft environmental impact statement for the Colorado River Management Plan.
"It's clear there's a 'Gang of 4' who just want their access at all cost, regardless of impacts to the resource and equity among river users," says Tom Martin, co-director of the Boulder, Colorado-based River Runners for Wilderness.
Instead of trying to crowd as many visitors on the river as possible using loopholes in the park's Management Plan, the Grand Canyon Wilderness Alliance and the Sierra Club has asked the Park Service to protect the wilderness character of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon by providing levels of recreational use consistent with a wilderness experience and the fragile canyon resources.
"The only 'collaborative' approach these industry groups have taken is to collectively put their self-interests before protecting our national treasures," says Don Hoffman, Executive Director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition.
The Alliance recommends the phase out the use of powerboats on the proposed wilderness river. Powerboats seriously impact the wilderness experience and Park Service policy requires the agency to remove this "non-conforming" use. Non-motorized craft (oar-powered craft, dories, and paddleboats) easily provide a safe, enjoyable wilderness experience for all river runners.
Conservationists also propose to reduce group size to less than 20 people, a level consistent with a wilderness experience and preferred by most river runners. This is important because larger groups need more space for activities. When large groups camp at ever-diminishing beaches, they are forced to spread out into environmentally sensitive areas.
According to the Park Service, 96% of 25 camp sites monitored in the spring of 2003 had 10 trails per campsite, and one site had 88 trails. One trail is considered the limit to protect the shoreline areas of the canyon. Current impacts are severe enough to require native plant re-vegetation at nearly half of the river camp sites, according to NPS's draft Colorado River Management Plan.
"The Grand Canyon needs to be protected for generations to come and the Park Service has identified key problems such as trampled vegetation and noisy overcrowding at many sites along the river," says Roxane George, speaking for the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter. "The outfitters' plan is more of the same, but the Grand Canyon needs restoration and protection as its beaches grow smaller and wilderness disappears."
The Grand Canyon Wilderness Alliance and the Sierra Club also strongly recommends reducing the number of encounters between boats to a level that is compatible with a wilderness experience. The Park Service's own research shows the majority of river users prefer less than three encounters with other groups each day.
Rather than locking in commercial use, the wilderness groups recommend that the Park Service should provide commercial services only when they are demonstrated as necessary and appropriate and the minimum required for providing recreational rafting opportunities consistent with the purposes of wilderness. Only then should the agency establish freely adjustable and equitable use allocation between commercial and non-commercial river runners.
"Nothing more than the future of the Grand Canyon is at stake here," says Jo Johnson, Co-Director of River Runners for Wilderness. "This 'breakthrough' is wiping out a chance for change for the river and further entrenches the status quo of crowds, noise, and ecological destruction taking place in the canyon."