Grand Canyon and motorboats don’t mix

  Last fall, standing on the traditional scouting point high above Grand Canyon's legendary rapid, Lava Falls, we debated our course. Low water relieved us of the agony of choice: The left run, a maze of boulders, was too treacherous; we resigned ourselves to paddling the right-hand run through Lava's thundering mayhem. Thirty years of river- running failed to quell an uneasy sensation in my stomach, and yet, the rapid drew us toward it; we couldn't change our direction, nor would we want to.

Though travelers on that river trip may not have known it, most of Grand Canyon National Park, including the river, is "proposed wilderness," a status requiring the Park Service to protect the canyon's wilderness values until Congress acts. The park embraces 240 miles of free-flowing river, the longest whitewater wilderness in the Lower 48 states.

Not surprisingly, the Grand Canyon remains one of America's most sought-after adventures, supporting an annual $30 million industry. At the same time, the wait for private, "self-guided" trips such as mine can last 20 years.

The commercial river-tour industry controls about 70 percent of river access, giving it a big footprint along the river. Concentrated use results in large gatherings at camps at favorite hiking locations, harming the fragile desert environment. Polluting, noisy outboard motors and crowds tend to diminish the human experience.

As a result, the Park Service is now revising its Colorado River Management Plan, providing the public an opportunity to improve wilderness management. The major issues include wilderness protection, barring motor boats and a fairer permit system.

Large groups of commercial tours, powerboats and helicopter exchanges of river passengers continue to impact the canyon, while private boaters get treated like second-class citizens. Upstream of the park, Glen Canyon Dam blocks nutrients and sediment essential to native aquatic species; the icy waters released from Lake Powell's depths have obliterated many native fish.

The overriding issue for the river-running industry is the prospect of phasing out motors: Motors are barred in wilderness.

Comcessionaires argue that they can’t do business and provide public access without motorboats. Their definition of "public," however, is narrow. Professionally guided trips, whether motorized or oar-powered, are taken by those with deep pockets: A recent study revealed that about 50 per cent of commercial passengers come from households making over $100,000 a year. Concessionaires say many clients insist on taking fast trips, and motor boats and helicopters can speed tourists through the canyon.

While the needs of tourists are important, I believe Grand Canyon has its own needs. But there does not have to be a reduction in the total number of visitors enjoying the river. A fairer allocation system might reduce commercial group sizes, spreading out recreational use into the spring and fall, and phasing out motors over several years.

The Colorado River remains the wild heart of the Grand Canyon. John Wesley Powell, the first to lead an expedition down the great river, in 1869, celebrated the canyon’s beauty: "The wonders of the Grand Canyon" wrote Powell, "cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech itself…for here the colors of the heaven are rivaled by the color of the rocks…But form and color do not exhaust all the divine qualities of the Grand Canyon. It is the land of music."

The chance to listen to the canyon's music -- the whisper of a quiet eddy without the chatter of crowds, the cry of a peregrine falcon, or the roar of rapids without the whine of an outboard motor -- is the essence of Grand Canyon. These are the values worthy of our support. It is ironic that the only way to keep something wild is through government regulation. But future generations will thank us for protecting Grand Canyon.

Kim Crumbo is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He has been a river guide, river ranger and wilderness manager at Grand Canyon for over 30 years. He also served as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam and is currently the Grand Canyon regional coordinator for the Arizona Wilderness Coalition.