The National Park Service is now designing a new plan for managing whitewater river trips through the Grand Canyon. But in pursuit of a no-compromise agenda, a small group of wilderness advocates would like the clean, quiet, low-powered and environmentally friendly motors used on these trips banned. They’d like most of the park, including 240 miles of its Colorado River corridor, designated by Congress as part of the Wilderness Preservation System.
Congress has already
acted once to allow motorized use on the river to continue, because
for five decades this use has helped the Park Service achieve its
dual mission of protecting the Grand Canyon while providing for its
responsible public use. This debate has always been about
aesthetics, not resource protection. It’s also a debate about
who, exactly, gets to go on Grand Canyon whitewater trips.
Without motorized rafts, the number of people able to
enjoy a professionally-outfitted river trip could be reduced by 50
percent or 60 percent -- or more. Some wilderness advocates, who
often see people as the problem, want the river’s visitation
reduced this dramatically. They resent those visitors who
don’t share their standards for legitimate modes of
The Grand Canyon’s professional
river outfitters believe the Grand Canyon belongs to all Americans.
This includes those who might be older, a little overweight,
disabled, or not in the best physical shape. It should also include
those who don’t fancy the idea of riding in a small rowboat
that can flip upside down in the canyon’s world-class
Motorized rafts make possible a full canyon
river trip in six to eight days. In rowboats, however, the trip is
twice as long. As the Arizona Republic recently stated in an
editorial: "We believe the river corridor as wilderness would be
misguided – and elitist – public
policy….Motorized trips do not harm the resource….These
days, most people don’t have the time or physical endurance
for a two-week oar trip. It would be an injustice to deprive them a
chance to float down the Colorado River."
years ago, the river outfitters voluntarily began the upgrade to
clean and quiet 30 horsepower four-stroke outboard motors. We are
now experimenting with electric motorboats and have tested two
prototypes. Within the next six to eight years, we hope to begin
implementing a zero-emission, silent electric motorboat
alternative. Yet wilderness advocates object even to this idea
because the propulsion system would still be mechanized.
Unfortunately, because Glen Canyon Dam sits just upstream from the
park, the Grand Canyon’s river corridor may no longer meet
the statutory definition of lands eligible for wilderness status.
Leading conservation groups are now advocating a series of
intensive restorative activities, such as altering the
river’s temperature and augmenting its sediment load,
designed to return the Colorado River to its pre-dam natural
These activities, which involve changing
fundamental aspects of the river’s ecology, conflict with the
Wilderness Act’s notion of preserving unimpaired areas as
wilderness. The river corridor either qualifies for wilderness
designation, or is in need of massive human manipulation designed
to undo earlier massive human manipulation. It cannot be both.
Meanwhile, the motorized use now occurring is fully
consistent with the Wilderness Act, which expressly allows for the
continuation of motorboat use in designated wilderness areas where
already established. As we wait for Congress to act, continued use
of motors does no harm.
The call to eliminate motorized
rafts is a call to sacrifice the public interest for the sake of
ideological purity by denying tens of thousands of Americans the
opportunity for a Grand Canyon river trip. This is a high price to
pay. For everyone -- visitors on motorized and non-motorized trips
alike -- is forever changed by the canyon’s sublime beauty,
the river’s song and the self-discovery that comes from new
experiences in powerful places.