Off-roaders drive closer to the Grand Canyon
by Bill Wade
Part of the pride in putting on the iconic flat hat and the green and grey National Park Service uniform is knowing you work for an organization that tries to protect some of the most beautiful and historic places in the world. After serving the National Park Service for 32 years -- the last nine as superintendent of Shenandoah National Park -- a passage in the National Park Service's mission statement in the 1916 Organic Act resonates with me deeply:
The agency exists "…to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
That 92-year-old statement is what drives so many agency employees today, and what makes working for the National Park Service a special and rewarding experience. That is why it is so hard to stomach a recent final management plan adopted by the Bureau of Land Management for an area north of the Grand Canyon on the Arizona Strip -- specifically, the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument and the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. The plan concerns lands jointly managed by the National Park Service and the BLM, and it opens up previously protected trails, primitive roads and archaeological sites to off-road vehicles.
In the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument alone, more than 760,000 acres would be open to off-roaders. Farther east, more than 200,000 acres would be open in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. The newly designated routes in both monuments exceed what wildlife biologists say can be tolerated by big game species such as mule deer and pronghorn.
This is in direct opposition to everything that the National Park Service stands for as an organization, and it's a slap in the face to its employees, wilderness lovers and the Organic Act itself. It discounts the very reasons these places were designated national monuments in the first place.
The Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument boasts on its Web site that, "Modern-day visitors enjoy the solitude and quiet that this remote monument offers." Extending off-road vehicle use to new places means that this solitude and quiet will cease to exist. More vehicles will also lead to more trash, vandalism, damage and looting to sensitive areas. How does increasing motorized use leave these areas ‘unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations?"
The answer is, of course, it doesn't. Opening up these areas will damage cultural resources, wildlife, vegetation and solitude -- all resources the Park Service is responsible for safeguarding. The only way to protect these monuments from the damage that off-road vehicles will certainly do is for the agencies to amend its Arizona Strip plan to wipe those routes from the map. A reassessment should make it clear how the monuments' route systems impact wildlife and scientific values. Once the agencies find that the current route systems hurt wildlife and wilderness suitability, they have the authority to close those roads.
Without protection from the National Park Service, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument could well become unrecognizable. Deterioration will be swift and complete, and without additional protection by the BLM, the same will be true for Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. And when these areas have been damaged beyond repair, where will drivers of off-road vehicles turn? Which of our national treasures will be next on their list to treat as disposable property?
Does anyone believe that the geysers of Yellowstone National Park would be as magnificent as they are today without the protection of the National Park Service? Or that the spires, arches, and columns of Arches National Park would be as pristine without the watchful eye of the agency? These parks would be developed and roaded past recognition. But because the American people won protection for these places from the federal government, their remarkable resources are protected for all time.
The National Park Service and BLM need to step forward and continue to protect these lands in Arizona. That is what their missions require. Sacrificing portions here and there, whether to small, special interest recreation groups or to resource extractive industries, sets a bad precedent for the future of all federal lands, and cheats the American people to whom they belong.
Bill Wade is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He chairs the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees and lives in Tucson, Arizona.© High Country News