Commercial Bookings Continue as NPS Freezes Public Access

On December 9, 2003, Grand Canyon National Park announced it will no longer allow the public to seek boating permits for the Colorado River. River Runners For Wilderness Co-Director Jo Johnson called the move "shocking and premature. Now people wishing to reserve a future trip are forced to use expensive commercial services as they can no longer add their names to the permit list. The Park Service cites the failure of the current system without offering any remedies for public relief except the option of purchasing access from a park river concessionaire."

Grand Canyon officials noted that an overwhelming majority of public comments requested an overhaul of the present permitting system, and offered this as their reasoning for disallowing new applicants to the non-commercial permit system to float the canyon. "Granted, Grand Canyon National Park has a serious problem with the non-commercial permit system." says Johnson. "Our own review of the public comments has shown that an overwhelming majority of the public would like to see the access methods and allocation between the public and the river concessions changed. There is a backlog of 130,000 people already waiting years to raft the canyon without paying the high concessions fees. So why add fuel to that fire?" says Johnson, who is quick to point out that "We want the Park to be thinking about changing the access and allocation method to one that reflects real public demand and shows no favoritism."

Johnson brings up another point: "Freezing the waiting list removes an indicator of public demand for river trips, the only indicator NPS has. Now the park has no way of measuring demand at all. Vigorous advertising by commercial operators to fill trips and lack of demand for those same trips-many of which have gone unfilled the last few years-indicates an oversupply in their allocation. This is in stark contrast to the multi-year wait those 130,000 paddlers face.

One solution for the park that would be responsive to public demand is to introduce a Universal Permitting system. The trip leader gets a permit, then uses whatever commercial services they desire once they have a permit. "We look forward to the park's soon-to-be released draft alternatives for the Colorado River Management Plan" says Johnson, who points out that "If the park does not put forward the idea of an allocation free concept along with other possibilities, then this freeze is a signal that the future of access to our National Parks is in serious jeopardy."

"The Park has given no indication of what will replace the waiting list for public access" notes Jeff Ingram. Ingram's new book on the politics of access to the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, titled Hijacking A River, details how the current problem developed. " The Park started with a First-Come, First-Served system after 92% of the river access was assigned to the commercial operators. The public didn't like that, so the Park used a lottery from 1976 to 1980. This also failed. The Park then started the waiting list. It doesn't work, either, but the 20-year stagnated "status quo" of river management has not changed. Given the Park's attempts at various access systems, we are hoping the park releases a robust spectrum of alternatives, including a Universal Permit system, to get a serious public discussion as a basis for a sound access method."

"Trip opportunities are only open to anyone with the thousands of dollars needed to buy seats on commercial trips, but forbidden to anyone wishing to do it on their own." said Tom Martin, also with River Runners for Wilderness. "This commercialization of our parks is a chilling trend we have seen in this administration, with similar moves at Yellowstone National Park toward privatization of access."

Martin notes that allocations, if they exist at all, need valid indicators of demand so that allocations can shift yearly as needed. "We have heard that the river concessions had 18 trips worth of unused allocation this season. While we are glad to hear that the park will be transferring these unused commercial trips to public boaters for use this winter and next spring, we are amazed that the park does not immediately shift some allocation from the 14 river concessions back to the public. Given the public's huge backlog, if this isn't a clear indicator that the current management system is a failure, and not reflecting real demand, I don't know what is."