Salt Lake Tribune Speaks To CRMP

The following article appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune. If you can, please attend today's meeting.

Oars-Only Rule a Threat To Canyon, Outfitters Say
Monday, August 5, 2002 by Christopher Smith, The Salt Lake Tribune

When Lt. Joseph Ives chugged up the Colorado River to the mouth of the Grand Canyon aboard a steamboat in 1857, he gazed into the gorge and proclaimed it "altogether valueless."

"It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave," Ives wrote to his military superiors. "Ours has been the first and will doubtless be the last party of whites to visit this profitless locality." Had Ives been right, the National Park Service's job would be a lot easier today. But his motorized boat trip would later become the foundation for one of the most sought-after recreation experiences in North America, a white-water adventure through the famed Grand Canyon.

On Tuesday, Park Service officials will meet in Sandy to discuss whether outboard motors should be banned from Grand Canyon rafting trips in favor of only oar-powered rafts. It's one of several management alternatives to be weighed during an open house from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Salt Lake Community College Miller Training & Conference Center at 9750 S. 300 West.

Supporters of the idea to outlaw outboards say the noise of motors takes away from a "wilderness quality" experience. As a standard to aspire to, they invoke the name of another famous canyon explorer who navigated the wild waters with two oars and one arm. "John Wesley Powell was not down there on a motorboat, and that is the heritage the Grand Canyon has to offer," says Tom Martin, founder of Moab-based River Runners for Wilderness. "This is the crown jewel of the National Park system, and we can make jewelry out of it or we can make sewer lines out of it." Park Service records for all Grand Canyon river trips show four out of five visitors traveled aboard a rubber boat powered by a low-horsepower outboard motor during the 2000 season. That year, 23,812 people went down the river, with 19,252 aboard motorized rafts and 4,560 on oared boats.

Most commercial outfitters, whose federal contracts allocate a majority of the available launch dates to their paying clients, say if they are forced to switch from motorized pontoon boats to oared rafts, the number of boats and guides in the canyon corridor will skyrocket. "We now run 12 motorized boats with two guides on each boat, and if we were required to switch to oar-powered boats, that would increase to 54 boats with one guide per boat," said Brian Merrill of Western Rivers Expeditions in Salt Lake City, one of the two biggest river outfitters in the Grand Canyon. The drastic increase in boats would ultimately force the Park
Service to reduce the number of launches allowed, something outfitters say would unfairly limit access by visitors. "Without motorized use, our analysis suggests that public availability of professionally outfitted river trips could decrease by 30 percent or more, from 19,000 passengers annually to as little as perhaps 8,000 or 9,000," says Mark Grisham, director of the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association.

Motorized rafts used by outfitters generally carry 18 clients, whereas oar rafts carry four. Four of the 16 outfitters with contracts to offer Grand Canyon trips use only oar-powered watercraft, and the rest offer both oar and motorized trips or only motorized trips. The outboards used on commercial rafts are small trolling motors, propelling the boats at a about 8 mph on flat water. All outboards now used in the canyon are four-cycle engines, quieter and less polluting than standard two-cycle outboards. Although some oars-only outfitters claim a marketing advantage, outfitters using motorized craft say customers prefer the shorter time commitment, usually six days, versus 12 or longer for an oared trip. "With motorized trips there are fewer nights of camping in the canyon, which means less impact," Merrill says. "The current system gives people a choice between the type of trip they take, and there are definitely people who would not take a trip through the canyon if they had to go on an oared raft."

Martin argues there's no statutory or regulatory basis for the Park Service to even allow motors on rafts in the Grand Canyon. Grand Canyon National Park officials say he's "technically" correct. "But what he has not recognized is there is also no statutory or regulatory requirement for allowing oar-powered trips either," says Allen Keske, the park's concessions manager. Much of the motors versus oars debate is rooted in history. The park began regulating commercial river trips in the canyon in 1972, when both motorized and oar trips were offered. Those first concession permits, valid for 10 years, made no mention of preferred propulsion methods.

Questions over the propriety of motors in the canyon corridor were raised in the early 1980s, when some river runners urged the park not to allow motors when the 1972 contracts came up for renewal. Phasing out motors was seriously considered by the park, but Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, inserted an amendment into the 1981 Interior Department appropriations bill that prohibited the Park Service from using federal funds to curtail the use of motors on the river. "The Hatch amendment did not create a motor requirement nor did it do anything to sanctify motor use. It just prevented us from using funds in that appropriations cycle to diminish the use of motors," Keske said. "But that amendment and the ultimate failure of the 1984 river management plan meant the historical use of motors was perpetuated."

Current contracts between the park and outfitters recognize motors as a historical means of propulsion down the river. But those contracts expire next year, and opponents such as Martin say the time is long overdue to rid the river of motorboats and overhaul a management system weighted in favor of motorized trips. "When outfitters say people prefer motorized trips, it's like saying everybody preferred a black car in the 1920s," Martin says. "People don't have much choice. "And you don't see commercial passengers saying, 'We like these high prices, we like going fast through the canyon and we like shouting over the noise of the motor to talk to our guides.' "

Grisham counters that outfitters believe the use of outboard motors in the canyon doesn't permanently harm the resource, it provides broad public access and it is part of the history of the river corridor. "The level of visitation along the Colorado River within the park, while meeting today's high standards for resource protection and visitor experience quality, simply would not be possible without the use of pontoon boats powered by low-emission, low-noise outboard motors," he says.

On the Web

Grand Canyon National Park Colorado River Management Plan:
River Runners for Wilderness:
Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association: