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