"The only way to maintain a positive experience without trampling the park is to institute per-car reservations during high-use periods," Evison says.
Currently, reservations are required for everything from motel rooms and camping to mule rides and raft trips. But this would be the first time a national park would require reservations just to get in the gate. But Evison says it wouldn't be as tough as turning away visitors when the park fills up - something that happens in Yosemite on busy days.
The proposal has drawn fire from a few Arizonans who like the freedom of popping up to the canyon on short notice. And some local businesses worry that reservations will drive tourists elsewhere. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., believes that reservations should be a last option.
The draft of a 15-year management plan, due out in the fall, will consider other options to deal with crowding. Visitors may have to leave their cars outside the park and use mass-transit systems to get around (HCN, 11/29/93). But these ambitious plans would take years to implement, Evison says.
"Even if we had all the money that would be required to run a transportation system, if we had it now, it would take probably five years to get it operating." Over that time, he says, visitation is expected to climb from 5 to 7 million people a year.
But the Park Service does not have the money now and probably won't in the future, "unless there's a tremendous turn-around in the economy," says Evison. He has given up on Congress and is beginning to look elsewhere.
At Evison's request, the non-profit Grand Canyon National History Association hired a California-based consultant, John Whaley, to study private funding for the park. It's not the first time that the National Park Service has gone to private sources for money, says Bob Koons, the Natural History Association director. The Yosemite Fund gathers money from a variety of individual and corporate donors. High-profile soliciting campaigns also helped restore Mt. Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty. Whaley was involved in the Statue of Liberty campaign in the 1980s.
Most of the money would be for big-ticket capital improvement projects, according to Koons, such as light-rail or clean-burning buses. But some money might be pooled for general use. Park spokeswoman Maureen Ultragge has a list of everyday park operations that suffer from underfunding, including roads and trails, visitor services and interpretive programs, restrooms and plumbing.
Some environmental groups worry about conflicts of interest. Roger Clark, conservation director for Grand Canyon Trust, says private funding is a fine idea if it doesn't jeopardize "park qualities and visitor experience, including freedom from commercialization. We have to beware of schlock in the park," he says. "Imagine signs at the overlooks: "This View Brought to You by CitiBank.' "
Koons stresses that the process is still in the exploratory phase. He hopes funding will come from firms and individuals whose interests are compatible with the interests of the National Park Service, and he expects that they will be "acknowledged in a way that does not confer ownership."
But is this an easy sell? "With the Statue of Liberty you could show people an arm ready to fall off," Koons says, "but how do you get them to feel an emotional appeal so they're willing to help the Grand Canyon?"
As Grand Canyon National Park begins moving through the untested waters of reservations and private funding, other national parks in similar straits will be watching. Boyd Evison says that "Grand Canyon is seen in other quarters of the National Park Service as having potential for model programs."
Send information requests or comments to Boyd Evison, Superintendent, National Park Service, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023.
* Ernie Atencio
Ernie Atencio is a former HCN intern. He currently studies anthropology and writes in Flagstaff, Arizona.