Tribe Battles Park Over River Running


By Mark Shaffer, Republic Flagstaff Bureau, Arizona Daily Star

Oct. 13, 2005 12:00 AM

GRAND CANYON WEST - Deep in the bowels of the far western part of the Grand Canyon, where the mighty Colorado River turns from roiling rapids into steady stream, it's like a big lake party.

Speedboat operators rev up to 50 mph before doing sharp 180-degree turns in the river's channels as joyful tourists shriek in delight. A steady stream of helicopters ferrying tourists from the Hualapai Tribe's Grand Canyon West airport sink stomachs by surging out beyond the rim into the open air above the deep gorge.

But lost in all the hair-raising thrills for tourists is a bitter battle between the Hualapai Tribe and National Park Service as to who controls the river along the 108-mile northern boundary of the reservation.

The decision has huge implications for the river-tour industry, which transports nearly 25,000 people annually through the Grand Canyon. The Hualapais claim the federal government created a northern boundary for its reservation on the river with an executive order signed by President Arthur in 1883. Meanwhile, a federal solicitor opined in 1999 during a water rights case that the tribal boundary was actually at an undetermined high-water mark, which would mean that in normal flow periods, the tribe would have no access to the river.

All the claims and counterclaims are coming to a head now, as the Park Service tries to complete its long-awaited Colorado River Management Plan, which will regulate, among many other things, the number of people on river trips passing through the Grand Canyon.

"The Park Service is trying to manage the resource, and they don't know where the freaking boundary is for sure," said Mark Grisham, executive director of the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association in Flagstaff, a consortium of river-tour operators. "This is a very explosive situation." Officials from Grand Canyon National Park and the regional office of the Park Service in Denver declined requests for interviews.

Angry tribe members have walked out of recent meetings concerning attempts to negotiate an agreement for the boundary. They also have threatened to charge those ending their river trips on Hualapai land hundreds of dollars unless the issue is resolved.

Most river travelers now pay a nominal fee to the tribe if they choose to end their trip either at Whitmore Wash with a helicopter flight or at Diamond Creek, where they bus through the Hualapai Reservation. One of the most thrilling rapids on the Colorado, Lava Falls, is on the Hualapai boundary. The tribe operates a five-hour, $280 river trip over 36 miles of the best white water adjoining the reservation. About 12,000 tourists take the trip annually, said Steve Beattie, chief financial officer of the tribe. None of the proceeds goes to the Park Service.

"The Park Service is using (the river management plan) to throttle our tribal economic development," Hualapai Chairman Charlie Vaughn said. "We could hold up the management plan for years (with a lawsuit) if we want to, but we're trying to go through mediation on this." According to Park Service planning documents, the agency wants to cap the number of Hualapai river-runner pontoon-boat passengers at 150 a day. The Hualapais want a cap of 960 a day. The Grand Canyon's general management plan notes that the objective for the river is to protect it "in a wild and primitive condition."

Vaughn said that the tribe began curtailing its motorized-boat activities in the far western part of the Canyon on Oct. 5 as a goodwill gesture, hoping to try to strike an accord in the dispute.

The Hualapais' Grand Canyon Resort Corp. attracts about 300,000 tourists annually to the reservation to take helicopter flights and boat rides near the Quartermaster View Point area, south of the Colorado River. The Park Service manages the land north of the river.

Grisham said he doesn't think the Park Service will back away from trying to manage the entire river through the Grand Canyon. "We certainly feel like we've been caught in the middle of all this and just want to get along with everybody," Grisham said.

Grisham said that the river-tour groups would likely take the tribe to court if it attempted to "assert management authority over us." "They (Hualapais) won't work with us directly because we aren't a government," Grisham said. "It would be a real risky thing for them to take this to court because they could end up with no rights to the river."

Reach the reporter at mark.shaffer@arizonare or (602) 444-8057.