There's more to the story about crowded Grand Canyon
Dennis Brownridge brought up some interesting points in his article about the National Park Service's "Proposed Action" of their Draft General Management Plan for Grand Canyon National Park (HCN, 4/3/95). Unfortunately, his treatment of the subject was, while not necessarily wrong, at least remarkably biased, and did not begin to offer the whole picture for examination. A few examples:
* While plans for the "mammoth new parking lots' he mentions at Mather, Desert View and North Rim exist, he fails to mention that the Park Service also proposes to remove several already existing parking lots, and revegetate those areas. The idea is to get people to gather away from the rim, and from these parking lots disperse on foot or bike or in public transit. According to the agency's transportation specialist, it will not cost the $100 per person or group that people fear. They are also considering options to allow backcountry hikers to drive private vehicles to the trailheads under some sort of permit system. While I am not sure I support the idea of building new parking lots, gathering people away from the rim and getting them out of their cars does not seem like all that bad an idea.
* Mr. Brownridge states that the NPS will "open up wilderness stretches on both rims from new bike and pedestrian trails." First of all, there is nothing anywhere near the developed areas of both rims (which is what the plan is addressing) that even remotely resembles wilderness. The plans show these trails running right through areas already in use, in some cases using pre-existing roads. Hooray! Get the public out of their cars, onto their feet and bicycles. If we want to encourage people in this regard, we'd better give them some means to do it.
* The 260 "new" lodging rooms mentioned is not quite accurate. Yes, about 240 rooms will be added. These will be created by adding onto already existing structures, such as the Yavapai Lodge, or by converting historic cabins into low-cost lodging. Again, while this does encourage more people to come, it encourages the right kind of visitation, which seems more important than mere numbers. We need to discourage the kind of "fly-by" visitation that gets people there for two hours only. We do want to encourage people to come, stay, learn, see, appreciate. Also, Mr. Brownridge failed to mention that the Kachina and Thunderbird lodges would be removed in this plan, and the area vegetated and used for public seating, programs, etc.
* The plan proposes to take the gift shops out of certain areas, and put others, like the Hermit's Rest and Desert View Watchtower facilities, back to their original historic character and usage, getting rid of the tacky crap that is sold in most of them today. In certain areas, the gift shops would be removed, as would other non-historic facilities.
* The "private development" outside the park that Mr. Brownridge mentions may be very important. The town of Tusayan is in desperate need of some well-planned and thoughtful development to become a viable town. The living conditions in Tusayan are unsatisfactory, there is little sense of community, and no place to educate your children or let them play. The people of Tusayan would like to guide their own development, and that should be done. Tusayan needs to be a place people want to live, and can live comfortably and happily. They are the gateway and part of the support system for a fluctuating "city" of 5 million people. Some things that private development might bring to their town are better housing, schools, parks, an environmental education center, a community center, etc. Perhaps they could become the community that houses all support facilities for the park.
Some other proposed actions set forth by this plan, which Mr. Brownridge failed to mention, are:
* The historic village area will be used by pedestrians only, and many of the historic structures will be reused and turned into facilities like museums, interpretive centers, Grand Canyon Field Institute classrooms and offices, a Native American Cultural Center, arts in the park facility, etc. This will effectively offer visitors a chance to experience something other than the restaurants and gift shops in which they currently spend most of their time. They will have an opportunity to learn about the canyon and the region, and to get out of their cars while doing it.
* Mule use on the South Rim, and possibly North Rim trails, will be reduced, and the Fred Harvey concession will be more responsible for helping with trail maintenance. Vehicle size and numbers on the North Rim will be limited, and visitors will be required to use a public transit system for Bright Angel Point.
* The park will develop and implement an ecosystem approach to managing threatened and endangered species, and plans an active research and recovery program.
There are many other ideas in this proposal, but this will serve to get the point across. While I do not necessarily think that the "Proposed Action" holds all the answers, or that it is even the single best idea, there are some good attempts in it to obtain a balance between the increasing number of visitors and the protection of the resource and quality of the visitor experience. This plan makes a good effort to do something that up to now has never been done: It attempts to educate visitors about the canyon and make it mandatory for them to get off their butts and out of their cars.
Christa Sadler is a writer, geologist and river guide in Grand Canyon, and an educator at the Grand Canyon Field Institute, Prescott College and Northern Arizona University.