My first day on board this rafting trip, and my first experience of the Grand Canyon by water. It feels as if I've fallen through the looking glass. At dawn, when I started down the Kaibab Trail toward Phantom Ranch, it was four degrees below zero, with a foot of crusted snow on the South Rim. The first mile of descent was slick and frozen enough that I wished for crampons.


Twelve hours later, I have been taken in by comrades who have already spent 10 days on the river; I've been baptized in the bow of a 14-foot raft by virtue of a wet run through Horn Creek Rapids, and I am already a willing captive to the seduction of great current and sublime, looming vise of several billion years' worth of exposed geology.


Firelight licks around the circle of faces. It's the first week of March and cool enough for a fleece jacket, but I'm comfortable sitting on the sand. My sleeping bag is laid out under the stars on the hardpan of 91-Mile Wash.


To my right in the circle of wavering light sits Tom Martin, president of the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association. He is a tall, lean man who prefers to row his 18-foot raft standing up. The Grand Canyon is both his passion and his cause. He grew up near here, has spent his life exploring the backcountry and running the river.





"Every time I come," he tells me, "I assume it's my last trip, and I get all of it I can."


Before long, we are deep in a discussion of Colorado River politics. Tom, along with a handful of others, started the private boaters' group in 1996, frustrated by not having a voice in river-management issues. The organization grew from an upwelling of resentment at what private boaters saw as a system unfairly weighted against them.


The Flagstaff, Ariz.-based group has already established itself as a strong player on the river-management landscape. In addition to engaging in energetic political advocacy, it publishes a quarterly newsletter and maintains an e-mail newswire service.





"There are times," Tom tells me, "when I really fear that the Grand Canyon river experience is in danger of becoming a privatized affair monopolized by outfitters. The bureaucratic obstacles private boaters have to overcome, the expenses they are saddled with, and the slice of permit allocation they receive combine to make running the river a truly daunting challenge."


This late-winter trip is a case in point. Doug, the permit holder, waited 10 years for his name to inch up the waiting list. By that time the rest of his original group had dispersed, lost interest, gotten old, moved on.


This group has been cobbled together through a haphazard network of word-of-mouth contacts and sheer coincidence. The five rafts have coalesced from four different states and nearly half of the core group of nine had never met before gathering at Lees Ferry to load boats. I am lucky enough to have been invited along as a passenger by a trip member from Montana.


Doug bemoans the hassle of the permit bureaucracy. "People have put their kids' names on the list as soon as they are born," he tells me. "That way they might get to do a trip together before college."


The temptation to circumvent the system stems from the fact that the first-come, first-served waiting list for private permits is now almost 7,000 people deep. Out of desperation for a permit, people have been caught forging identification, and when the Park Service opened the phones on the first working day of 1998 to take calls for cancelled launch dates, all 16 phone lines were jammed for a solid two hours.


Shortly afterward, the park announced that it wouldn't be doing that again anytime soon.


If you get on the list today, and if nothing changes, you'll wait about 18 years for your chance. At the end of that long stint, if you aren't in a retirement home, the Park Service requests a prioritized list of your 15 preferred launch dates, which are granted in the order of permit number. Unless you are very near the top of the pile, getting one of your top dates is unlikely. But you take what you get, or you don't go.


By that time, the bureaucracy will have squeezed $750 from you in permit fees alone - $100 to get on board, another $200 when you get the permit, and $25 each year for the required "continuing interest" payment. That's before you've dropped a dime into food, equipment, travel, or the substantial park impact fees, starting with a $4/person/night camping charge. Daunting indeed.


Martin notes that changing the fee structure has been one of the private boaters' top priorities. He expects that the Park Service will soon drop its continuing interest payment in favor of a more streamlined, although not necessarily cheaper, system.





Outfitters are in control


By contrast, the commercial outfitters, who pump more than 20,000 clients every year down the Grand Canyon, are understandably content with the status quo. Back in 1979, after spending seven years studying river-use levels, the Park Service split the allocation pie roughly 70 percent to 30 percent in the outfitters' favor. By then the waiting list for private permits was already in place, and the fees and burgeoning bureaucratic tangle have been mounting ever since.





"The private-access system is terribly broken," agrees Mark Grisham, executive director of the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association. "But outfitters spent many years building a successful program. We don't want to simply transfer the problems of one user group onto another."


The outfitters' group was incorporated in 1996, and Grisham was appointed to his post at that time. Operating out of Flagstaff, it is a trade organization representing the 15 outfitters who handle 16 river concession contracts in the Grand Canyon. As such, the outfitters' association acts as a public mouthpiece and political lobbying arm. Grisham expresses a commitment to negotiation with private boaters and the Park Service, but draws the line when it comes to trimming the outfitters' share of allocation.





"We will fight any reduction in our allocation," he says.


Behind some of the bitterness expressed by private users is the history of policy decisions that they believe have benefited commercial outfitters.


The most significant of these decisions came in 1980, when the Park Service adopted a new Colorado River Management Plan that would have phased out motors in the canyon over a five-year period. A 10-year public review process had led it to this conclusion.


In anticipation of the wilderness designation, outfitters were granted an increase of user-days to compensate for the transformation from fast motor trips to slower oar trips. Then, in a surprising turn, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, added a rider to a one-year Interior Appropriations bill that prohibited the Park Service from spending any money to implement its motor ban.


In the ensuing political fallout, the Park Service, perhaps under orders from Interior Secretary James Watt, did a rapid about-face and reversed its wilderness conclusion about the river corridor. The new plan avoided the issue of phasing out motorboats.





"It was pretty much a major capitulation on the part of the Park Service," says Kim Crumbo, wilderness coordinator for Grand Canyon National Park. This time around, he adds, "We're trying to avoid past mistakes by working our policy through the public process."





An administrative nightmare


Charges of elitism fly both ways. Outfitters claim that only a select few have the skills, equipment, time and resources to handle the challenge of a Grand Canyon trip. Further, they question the safety of private trips that aren't subject to rigorous standards of quality control.


Private boaters respond by citing the 7,000-person line willing to put up with a half-generation-long test of patience, and point out that each name on the list represents a group of up to 15 more. Moreover, paddle sports has been one of the strongest growth sectors in the recreational marketplace over the last 25 years. According to statistics compiled in a National Survey of Recreation and the Environment, some 25 million Americans now identify themselves as canoeists, kayakers and rafters. If even 2 percent of those are skilled enough to handle the Grand Canyon's rapids, it still amounts to 500,000 potential users.


Private boaters charge "financial elitism" and privatization of a public resource: Commercial clientele routinely ante up $200 to $300 per day for the thrill and magic of the Colorado River in a catered environment.





"What about groups like the Boy Scouts or outdoor recreation programs?" asks Tom Martin. "Those are the people who are not even in the picture. They can't afford an outfitter and they can't wait 20 years."


Private boaters point to other evidence of a double standard. For example, private groups are limited to a maximum size of 16, while outfitters are allowed groups of 36, without counting employees toward the user-day total. As a result, commercial trips can number as many as 42 people.


Most people agree that there is a stark difference in ambiance and personal gratification between private and outfitted trips. Larry Ashcroft, who works for the Arizona Republic newspaper, and who has participated in one private and three outfitted Grand Canyon journeys, admits that "it's pretty hard to have a bad trip in a place like that.





"But," he adds, "if you really want to get in deep, private trips are the only way to go."


Ashcroft cites his distaste for "the arrogance of boatmen who sometimes treat clients like children on outfitted trips," and he decries the use of helicopters that whisk clients in and out on four- and five-day trips.





"It's simply a way for the outfitters to make money," he says. "Here you are at the absolute pinnacle of beautiful country and you can't even concentrate on it because of those god-awful helicopters.





"On the other hand," Ashcroft says, "I still get choked up when I think back on my 25-day private float. After the trip ended, the whole group of us just wandered around aimlessly in Flagstaff. Nobody wanted to admit that it was really over."


In the end, it comes down, once again, to the pressure humanity exerts on a unique and lovely resource; and no one envies the National Park Service the task of presiding over the fray.


Responding to escalating complaints, the Park Service instigated a lengthy and thorough review of its Colorado River Management Plan in 1997. The original timeline called for a document by the spring of 2000, but the process is already six months behind schedule. When it arrives, the plan will supplant the one formulated back in 1989.


Linda Jalbert, outdoor recreation planner with Grand Canyon National Park, readily admits to "the glaring problems with the current system." She summarizes the park's objectives as twofold. First, to "provide better access to the resource," and second, "to streamline an administrative process that has become a nightmare."


Beyond that, Jalbert hopes that the process used to formulate the plan, and the strategy that comes forth, might "set a precedent for other heavily used resources in North America." She points to the "development of a river-use simulation model" as part of the groundbreaking work in this regard.


The public comment "scoping phase" has now been completed. Out of that, the Park Service has organized a handful of "work groups," made up of stakeholders and citizens, to tackle a list of target issues.


The Park Service expects that the material produced by the working groups will lead to an environmental impact statement. That document will then be exposed to public comment before a policy emerges.





"We are making a real effort to incorporate public involvement throughout this process," adds Jalbert. "I feel confident that specific strategies for handling river use will come out of this more general approach."





Wilderness: the other


hot potato


Meantime, the political landscape keeps shifting with the winds of lobbying pressure. In 1997, for example, the "Outfitters Policy Act" (Senate Bill 1489) was submitted by Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. The bill's first-draft provisions would have locked in fixed allocation levels for outfitters with stipulations to prevent future adjustments. The bill also guaranteed helicopter access to potential wilderness areas, and gave veto powers to outfitters over any rule changes that might affect their operations.


Public outcry was strident enough that the bill was returned to committee for review. It is, however, expected to resurface in the next congressional session.


The issue of wilderness designation for the river corridor is a hot potato, not only dividing outfitters from private boaters, but also non-motorized outfitters from the majority who powerboat clients in and out of Grand Canyon.


An 11-year-old nonprofit group that represents professional boaters, called Grand Canyon River Guides, has just sent out a questionnaire asking whether the canyon should become official wilderness. Opinions from 760 guides, as well as 1,100 general members, will be tallied next month. The trend so far, says Christa Sadler, the group's president, is support for immediate wilderness or eventual wilderness status, phased in over time.





"This could change as more come in," she points out. "It's a pretty polarized issue. No one is signing their names on the questionnaires."


Now that a new wilderness plan is up for grabs, "that has opened the door for the public to elevate the issue," says Jalbert.


In fact, there is a gathering chorus of support for wilderness, expressed by groups including the Grand Canyon Trust, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, who argue that the Grand Canyon is the epitome of the kind of place that should be protected as a natural environment.


Recently, the Grand Canyon Trust and the private boaters' group sponsored a meeting in Flagstaff devoted to discussing wilderness designation for the Grand Canyon river corridor. Eleven conservation organizations attended, representing 2 million members.





"The conclusion of an overwhelming majority of attendees was in favor of wilderness designation," reports Tom Martin.


Tom Robinson, director of Conservation Policy for Grand Canyon Trust, says, "Motors are not essential for outfitted trips, although they certainly increase the profit margin." He calls the outfitters' argument against wilderness designation "nothing more than a smoke screen."


The outfitters' group counters that wilderness designation, if it includes the banning of motors, would limit public access to this stunning place, putting it out of reach for thousands of users.


Motors are unquestionably the nub of the debate, since 75 percent of concession river travel is now supported by motorized craft, and Park Service statistics reveal that more than 50 percent of all commercial passengers are shuttled in and out by helicopter, starting or ending their trips at the helicopter landing at Whitmore Wash, below Lava Falls.





"We see ourselves as purveyors of a wilderness experience," says Grisham, who represents the outfitters. "We are not averse to talking about wilderness, but in this case, motors are part of the picture." At the same time, the outfitters' group is lobbying hard to keep the river corridor in non-wilderness status, along with side canyons such as the Little Colorado, Deer Creek and Tapeats Creek.


Grisham says motors on boats are crucial for river companies; otherwise, passenger loads would drop by as much as 50 percent.





"We don't think that cutting out half the people is reasonable," argues Grisham. "A large contingent of our clientele is either physically unable, or simply not interested in coping with the demands of non-motorized trips." He adds that "our helicopters are only over national park airspace for about 90 seconds."


Other stakeholders, including the private boaters, believe that the passenger reduction would be far less if outfitters would consider expanding their use window into the "shoulder seasons' in spring and fall.





"The financial bottom-line drives their argument," says Martin. "They want to preserve the good thing they have at the expense of the wilderness quality of the river corridor."





In harmony with the river


On my journey we don't even hear a boat motor for more than a week after I join up. Winter is a relatively quiet time on the Colorado. For that week we work our way down the gut-tightening whitewater at rapids like Granite and Crystal and Hermit. We take layover days during which people hike far into tributary canyons or scramble up towering layers of sediment. We sleep under the alley of stars bounded by rims of rock.


Near Matkatamiba Canyon, a peregrine falcon chases bats around the tight chasm at dusk. Later that night I wake to a rain shower and I scoot under a slab of sandstone like a big, down-coated lizard to escape.


Through all of it, the immensity of place, the dwarfing scope of geologic time, and the swirling power of river works its spiritual magic. As the days pile up, the world of family and deadlines and bank accounts recedes into some other, detached compartment of my life.


Then we hear a motor. It is mid-afternoon when I pick up the drone of engine, the approaching roar of a big support rig piled deep with gear, and a moment later, the whine of a smaller sport boat. It happens to be a science trip doing a siltation study. We chat with them for a time. They seem like interesting, friendly folks. Then they motor off. I smell gas fumes for another 10 minutes.


The encounter leaves a metallic taste in my mouth, and, to be honest, puts a slight tarnish on the grandeur that has become such a constant and overwhelming presence at the bottom of the canyon.


What's the big deal? I chastise myself. They're gone now. But, in a disquieting way, it is a big deal, it deflates the aura of the place enough to summon up that bitter, lingering aftertaste. And at that moment I know that the approaching whop of a helicopter rotor would make bile rise up in the back of my throat.


Elitist sentiment? If the Grand Canyon doesn't deserve elite treatment, what does?





Alan Kesselheim freelances from Bozeman, Mont. His latest book is Threading the Currents, published this year by Island Press.





You can ...


* comment on the management dilemmas facing Grand Canyon National Park, or receive more information, by going to the Colorado River Management Plan Web site at www.crmp.com, or by contacting Linda Jalbert at 520/638-7909;


* become a member of the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association for $20, and receive their newsletter, The Waiting List, by contacting GCPBA, Box 2133, Flagstaff, AZ 86003-2133 (www.flagstaff.az.us/~gcpba/).


* contact Mark Grisham at 520/556-0669 for more on the outfitter's perspective. The Grand Canyon River Outfitters' Association Web site is www.gcroa.com.


* contact the Grand Canyon River Guides at 520/773-1075 (gcrg@infomagic.com), or see their Web site at vishnu.glg.nau.edu/gcrg. GCRG publishes the Boatman's Quarterly Review, available for $25 a year, at P.O. Box 1934, Flagstaff, AZ 80002.