In a May 8, 2003, letter to Interior Secretary, Gale Norton, 10 Utah and Arizona Republican congressmen ask the Secretary to eliminate the river corridor from Grand Canyon National Park's (GCNP) wilderness recommendation. The letter, if acted on by the Secretary, would override 50,000 individual public comments that GCNP has received as part of their ongoing revision of the Colorado River Management Plan. With Adobe Acrobat software, the letter may be viewed at the web link: www.livingrivers.org/programs/rrfw/pdfs/GCrollback.pdf
Following an open public process, the National Park Service recommended more than one million acres of GCNP for wilderness protection in its 1980 wilderness recommendation. The Colorado River was included in the proposal as "potential wilderness," pending the resolution of motorboat issues. Wilderness designation would transition motorized rafting into oar powered rafting, and phase out the use of helicopters by commercial boating companies to exchange river trip passengers at the river's edge. Wilderness designation would also reduce commercial group sizes from their present level of 42 people per trip. The river concessionaires have successfully blocked the implementation of this recommendation for the last 23 years.
In the last five years, the river concessions have given over $40,000 to Arizona and Utah republican candidates, including five of the congressmen who signed the letter. The five are Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Orin Hatch (R-UT), along with Representatives Rick Renzi (R-AZ), J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ) and John Shadegg (R-AZ). One of the congressmen, Senator Orin Hatch, has direct ties to the river concessionaires as his cousin Ted Hatch operates Hatch River Expeditions.
There are presently 16 ten-year government contracts for river concessions in Grand Canyon, 75% of which are mandated to be motorized. The river concessionaires have formed an industry trade group, with annual funding of over $169,000, called the Grand Canyon Outfitters Trade Association (GCOTA). Mark Grisham is the association's executive director. In a recent interview with Salt Lake Tribune reporter, Christopher Smith, Mr. Grisham noted "We obviously believe the river should not be designated as wilderness, since there is no way to provide the level of current access and address the private boater issues if you take motors off the river." The river concessionaires are awarded, by contract, 80% of the river's annual allotment of visitors. The remaining 20% is given to the general river-running public, called private boaters, who presently face a 20-year backlog of permits to raft the canyon.
In the last ten days that the congressional letter has been public knowledge, organizations from around the country have begun to weigh in on this issue. Kim Crumbo is Grand Canyon Regional Coordinator for the Arizona Wilderness Coalition. Mr. Crumbo was a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit settlement between the river concessions, NPS, river runner and environmental groups that restarted the management planning process in 2002. "This is a deliberate attempt to silence the debate on this important wilderness issue," stated Crumbo, who noted that recent computer modeling shows how an increase in canyon access can be achieved by removing motorized tour boats from the canyon. Another co-plaintiff in the lawsuit settlement was America Whitewater. Jason Robertson, Access Director at American Whitewater, notes "We'd like to see the Colorado River Management Plan continue and not see a congressional end run on the current planning process."
Sue Gunn of The Wilderness Society Washington D.C. office, is worried about how this letter may effect the broader management of our country's federal lands. Ms. Gunn commented that "This appears to be part of a larger administration strategy to roll back wilderness protection for public land. This is a sad day when the public is deprived of their ability to participate in a public process issue related to wilderness in one of the nation's most cherished treasures."
Tom Martin, Co-Director of River Runners for Wilderness, voiced concern about the letter's potential effect of maintaining the status quo. "The river has not seen significant reform in the last 30 years. A handful of lucrative river concessions, operated in-house at the park, choke private business in the greater Grand Canyon region." Martin thinks there's a win-win in all this. "If the motorized concessions allocations were transformed into oar-powered park business permits, prices for these expensive trips would drop as competition between operators increased." Martin went on to note the backlog for public access would be resolved once the park moved away from fixed allocations, "as a few contractors would no longer block wilderness management. This in turn would give the regional economy a big boost."