The Grand Canyon stretch of the Colorado River has become an ideological and regulatory war zone, as debates rage over the use of motorized boats, and private and commercial boaters fight for their share of the river-permit pie. In 1997, the Park Service tried to chart the future of the Colorado by starting work on a revision of its River Management Plan, but the process proved so contentious that then-superintendent Robert Arnberger decided to abandon it in February 2000 (HCN, 10/9/00: Wilder Grand Canyon proves too contentious). Four boating and conservation groups sued the Park Service soon after Arnberger's decision.
Now, the effort to come up with a plan is back in the water. On Jan. 17, the Park Service reached a settlement with those groups to restart the planning process and to have a final management plan written by the end of 2004.
"The settlement itself doesn't resolve anything," says Willie Odem, the recently retired head of the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association. "All it really does is allow us to go and participate on the proverbial battlefield."
The Park Service was joined as a defendant in the suit by a group that represents commercial outfitters with concession contracts from the park. Now, however, the agency is going to find itself in the middle of the fight again. Faced with a minimum 10-year wait and a system that issues permits 70/30 in commercial outfitters' favor, private boaters are hungry for a more equitable share of the permits - a share commercial outfitters won't happily give up.
Park spokeswoman Maureen Oltrogge admits that the revived planning process is likely to be as contentious as ever. "There certainly are no guarantees," she says. But she calls the settlement "proof that these groups can come to the table."