Pack 'em in, Park Service suggests

  • Booming canyon: Cover of the

    b. draft plan for Grand Canyon
  • Billboard on private land outside Grand Canyon National Park

    Dennis Brownridge

After four years of studying how to limit the impact of tourists at Grand Canyon National Park, the National Park Service is suddenly in a rush to support more tourists.

In the park's long-awaited general management plan and environmental impact statement, released March 10 for quick public comment, the Park Service proposes developments such as more parking lots, overlooks and rim trails, to accommodate an additional 2 million tourists a year.

"It's an exciting document at a crucial time," says Dave Simon, Southwest regional representative of the National Parks and Conservation Association. "However, it dodges most of the major issues like a nervous politician."

A major issue is crowding; nearly 5 million people now visit the park each year - double the total of a decade ago. Lodgers, campers, backpackers and river runners already must make reservations in advance, but the plan/EIS puts off any limit on the great bulk of visitors: the people who spend a few hours whisking along the rims.

The Park service predicts that day use will increase at a slowed rate, and not until 10 or 15 years from now would reservations be required of day-users on the remote North Rim. The agency predicts that shortly thereafter, the popular South Rim will reach its carrying capacity of 22,640 people at any one time, and reservations will be required throughout the park.

In one dramatic gesture, the plan replaces private vehicles with tour buses on much of the south rim, but in the process makes it more difficult to reach trailheads and overlooks. Private vehicles would still be allowed on the most popular rim road, east of the South Rim village. But private vehicles would be allowed to park only at two South Rim overlooks, Mather Point and Desert View.

"It's almost certain" that the bus system would be run by a private company in partnership with the park, and riders would pay a fee, says Brad Ack of the Grand Canyon Trust. "So is the park going to limit visitation by pricing people out?"

The plan presents five general alternatives, ranging from doing nothing to maximum development. The preferred alternative, which would cost one-third of a billion dollars to implement, includes:

* Building mammoth new parking lots at Mather Point and Desert View, as well as on the North Rim and just outside the park's south entrance, to hold about 5,000 vehicles;

* Opening up wilderness stretches of both rims by constructing new paths, overlooks, and paved bikeways, roughly tripling the mileage of developed rim;

* Encouraging tourists to use canyon trails that are now fairly quiet, such as Grandview and Hermit;

* Building 260 new lodging rooms for tourists, a new gift shop, 1,320 housing units for employees, and 1.4 million square feet of support facilities such as garages; and

* Encouraging private development of new tourist services outside the park, mostly on land that is now national forest or Indian reservation.

The plan acknowledges that tourist towns would drill new wells that "would probably affect water resources in the canyon" and "could reduce or eliminate" some springs.

The plan is vague about how the changes will affect visitors' enjoyment. But it envisions reduced opportunities for quiet and solitude, and traffic jams at the south entrance.

Trails off the South Rim would get complicated and expensive. Tour-bus schedules would likely not allow for hikers setting out early in the morning or finishing after sunset. Such hikers would have to hire a taxi or private shuttle to the trailhead; shuttles now charge more than $100 to take a party of three to the most distant trailheads.

The park studied the South Rim and identified areas of "under-utilization," says Brad Traver, the park's planner. "We think that by doing a better job of spreading people around, we can accommodate the numbers of people."

But that may amount to "smearing the problem" of overuse around, warns Simon of the parks and conservation group.

The plan was generated by years of forums involving many agencies, the tourism industry and some conservation groups. But now that a preferred alternative is being put forth, the Park Service has allowed only 45 days for the public to comment.

Normally, the Park Service allows 60 days for comment; some agencies allow even longer comment periods. "We're trying to get this plan completed (approved) before the end of the fiscal year, Oct. 1," says Mike Spratt, who supervised the planning team. Then funds can be allocated and construction begun. "The Park Service is really excited about getting this thing moving."

The plan reflects the thinking of Secretary of Interior and former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt. He backs a separate, private proposal for new development outside the park that features affordable housing and more commercial services. Arizona Sen. John McCain, R, also wants the park accessible to large amounts of tourism.

Says one park official, "Secretary Babbitt has taken a direct interest and he feels the South Rim has room for plenty more people."

Because the plan is 318 pages long and a hefty five pounds, Simon says people need more time to digest it and react, and he'll ask that the comment period be extended.

If adopted, the plan would be carried out as funds come from Congress and sources such as concessionaires, outside corporations and foundations.

For information about the Draft General Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, call Larry Norris, National Park Service Planning Team Leader in Denver, at 303/969-2267. To comment on the plan, write Planning Team Leader, Grand Canyon General Management Plan, National Park Service, Denver Service Center-TWE, P.O. Box 25287, Denver CO 80225-0287. As it stands now, comments must be received before Monday, April 24.

Dennis Brownridge teaches high school near Mayer, Arizona. Ray Ring, HCN senior editor, contributed to this report.