Three years ago, Grand Canyon National Park tried to do something difficult, tedious and controversial about the backcountry and the river corridor that make up 94 percent of its holdings: Plan their future.
Park staffers began with a two-year public "scoping" process involving thousands of people. Meetings were hosted in a handful of major Western cities, and five "work groups' formed around themes like private access and outfitter services. The groups met regularly to struggle through sticky issues, such as the unequal allocation of river permits among private boaters and outfitters, and the continued use of motorboats and helicopters in the backcountry (HCN, 12/21/98: Grand Canyon Gridlock).
"These meetings were not for making agreements or reaching consensus," says Willie Odem, president of the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association, "but for information gathering by the park."
"There was nothing particularly unique or unprecedented about the process," says Linda Jalbert, outdoor recreation planner at Grand Canyon National Park, "nor do I think we have unique issues."
The process didn't always hum along. A draft proposal missed its deadline; Park Superintendent Robert Arnberger was heard to say that he wished the whole business would just go away. Intense differences of opinion, particularly between river outfitters and private boaters, resisted easy solutions. But it was a process; it was under way.
Pulling the rug out
Then, in February 2000, Superintendent Arnberger abruptly announced that the wilderness planning effort was over - halted. A "stunning turnaround" is what Mark Grisham, president of the Grand Canyon River Outfitters' Association, called Arnberger's pullout, and Grisham represents a contingent that appears to benefit most from maintaining the status quo at Grand Canyon.
Arnberger's decision even surprised some Park Service staffers. "I was shocked," says Jim Walters, deputy wilderness program director for the National Park Service Intermountain Region. "He just pulled the rug out."
In the deflated silence that followed his announcement, Superintendent Arnberger sent a letter addressed to "Grand Canyon Constituents," in which he detailed the official rationale for his decision.
First, he said, the management discussion was too contentious. Second, the process would require too much in the way of park resources. Third, he didn't feel he had sufficient direction from Congress with respect to wilderness designation.
Randall Rasmussen, program manager with the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, a citizens' watchdog group, calls Arnberger's argument "a straw man."
"Since when is controversy a reason to stop discussion?" he asks. "If contention is such a boogeyman, why did the NPS recently announce a proposal to exclude snowmobiles from 42 park units? Controversy should be a reason to include the public, not to exclude us!'
Rasmussen also bristles at Arnberger's citing lack of resources, since $400,000 was the projected spending on the planning process. They had already spent a good portion of that, he said, "which now appears to be wasted money."
Congressional direction is a moot point, Rasmussen says. NPS Director Robert Stanton issued Director's Order #41, specifically requiring all agency superintendents to complete wilderness management plans for all backcountry areas by 2002 - regardless of congressional designation.
In August 1999, the Park Service directive explicitly ordered phasing out nonconforming wilderness uses, such as motors on the Colorado River and snowmobiles in other parks, he says.
Agency staffer Walters adds that "our direct charge is to provide thorough assessment of backcountry and to manage it as wilderness until told otherwise. It is a clear and fundamental mandate."
To private boaters, it was hard not to conclude that the Park Service got cold feet. On one side of the debate sit commercial river outfitters, with 70 percent of the river-permit pie, motor and helicopter-supported trips and hefty political allies. On the other side sits an increasingly vocal group of private boaters who are fed up with a waiting-list system that can take two decades to work through, and angry at receiving only 30 percent of river permits. But while private boaters can protest, they lack political clout.
"We think," concludes Rasmussen, "that the Park Service saw some heavy rapids ahead in the management discussion and decided to simply jump out of the boat."
Odem says he met with Arnberger just hours after the superintendent's announcement. Arnberger told him, he says, that "he didn't want to be dragged in front of Congress again and ripped apart."
The previous fall, Utah Republican Rep. James Hansen had grilled Arnberger about possible wilderness designations in Grand Canyon.
"After that confrontation with Congress, the process stalled for six months or more. Then (came) the announcement to quit," Odem says.
Enter the courtroom
Within days of Arnberger's announcement, Odem's private boaters' group decided unanimously to sue.
"What other option did we have?" asks Odem. "People had reached an extreme level of anger and frustration ... We understood that some of the consequences of the legal process might not be ideal, but that's what we were left with. We felt like we'd been kicked in the stomach."
On July 6, the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association and its legal supporters held a news conference to announce their lawsuit against the Department of Interior and Arnberger. Plaintiffs in the case include the boaters' association, the National Parks Conservation Association, American Whitewater, and four private individuals.
"I don't think Arnberger expected us to get this kind of support," says Odem. "Instead of being confronted by our 650-member outfit, they are being challenged by groups with a combined membership of more than half a million."
Rasmussen says the lawsuit aims to get the Park Service back into the public-planning process, to challenge motors in wilderness backcountry, and to force an environmental review of contracts with river outfitters.
Kim Crumbo, one of the four citizen plaintiffs in the case, has a unique perspective on the situation. Crumbo left the Grand Canyon park staff, where he had spent 20 years as wilderness coordinator and river ranger, in September 1999. He'd been deeply involved with the backcountry planning process.
"I was looking at being fired for my views," says Crumbo, "so I retired instead. Besides, I felt I could do more good from the outside.
"I am an aggrieved party," Crumbo says, describing his part in the lawsuit. "First of all, I have signed up for a permit to float the Grand Canyon that I might have to wait 20 years for. It is an intolerable and patently unfair system. Second, as a citizen, I am suing the park to live up to its mandate to protect wilderness."
Crumbo isn't alone. Two other staff members directly involved with the planning process have either taken early retirement or requested a transfer. Superintendent Arnberger is also leaving Grand Canyon. After his announcement, Arnberger was promoted to regional director status, and will move to Alaska this fall.
Arnberger's February letter concludes with the words, "The end is not in sight, our work is not done, and progress will be made with the many opportunities yet available."
Since his surprise statement in February, however, the process has been essentially frozen. "No one is talking now," reports Grisham. "It's really frustrating to have made some discernible progress, and then have the whole thing come to a halt."
"This business could have been hammered out," agrees Crumbo. "There are ways to deal with these issues and come to compromises everyone could live with. My guess is that the Park Service saw this as a means to delay the confrontation."
Park Service employees refuse to comment on the issues or the lawsuit. Linda Jalbert reiterated Arnberger's statement that "the park was not successful in its strategy to proceed with planning in a manner that would avoid costly and unproductive debate." Public Affairs Officer Maureen Oltrogge reported that the Park Service is "working with their attorneys and studying the issues."
Meantime, the legal case will likely take years to grind through the courts. A new administration will move into the White House. Private boaters will inch up the waiting list, motors will drone down the sublime depths of the canyon, helicopters will whop overhead.
"If this goes to trial," predicts Odem, "whatever the verdict is will almost certainly be appealed."
Alan Kesselheim writes in Bozeman, Montana.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- Linda Jalbert, outdoor recreation planner, Grand Canyon National Park, 520/638-7909;
- Maureen Oltrogge, public affairs officer, Grand Canyon National Park, 520/638-7779;
- Willie Odem, president, Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association, 520/523-4449.
Copyright © 2000 HCN and Alan S. Kesselheim