My first day on board this rafting trip, and my first experience of the Grand Canyon by water. It feels as if I've fallen through the looking glass. At dawn, when I started down the Kaibab Trail toward Phantom Ranch, it was four degrees below zero, with a foot of crusted snow on the South Rim. The first mile of descent was slick and frozen enough that I wished for crampons.
Twelve hours later, I have been taken
in by comrades who have already spent 10 days on the river; I've
been baptized in the bow of a 14-foot raft by virtue of a wet run
through Horn Creek Rapids, and I am already a willing captive to
the seduction of great current and sublime, looming vise of several
billion years' worth of exposed geology.
Firelight licks around the circle of faces. It's the first week of
March and cool enough for a fleece jacket, but I'm comfortable
sitting on the sand. My sleeping bag is laid out under the stars on
the hardpan of 91-Mile Wash.
To my right in the
circle of wavering light sits Tom Martin, president of the Grand
Canyon Private Boaters Association. He is a tall, lean man who
prefers to row his 18-foot raft standing up. The Grand Canyon is
both his passion and his cause. He grew up near here, has spent his
life exploring the backcountry and running the
"Every time I come," he
tells me, "I assume it's my last trip, and I get all of it I can."
Before long, we are deep in a discussion of
Colorado River politics. Tom, along with a handful of others,
started the private boaters' group in 1996, frustrated by not
having a voice in river-management issues. The organization grew
from an upwelling of resentment at what private boaters saw as a
system unfairly weighted against them.
Flagstaff, Ariz.-based group has already established itself as a
strong player on the river-management landscape. In addition to
engaging in energetic political advocacy, it publishes a quarterly
newsletter and maintains an e-mail newswire
"There are times,"
Tom tells me, "when I really fear that the Grand Canyon river
experience is in danger of becoming a privatized affair monopolized
by outfitters. The bureaucratic obstacles private boaters have to
overcome, the expenses they are saddled with, and the slice of
permit allocation they receive combine to make running the river a
truly daunting challenge."
trip is a case in point. Doug, the permit holder, waited 10 years
for his name to inch up the waiting list. By that time the rest of
his original group had dispersed, lost interest, gotten old, moved
This group has been cobbled together through
a haphazard network of word-of-mouth contacts and sheer
coincidence. The five rafts have coalesced from four different
states and nearly half of the core group of nine had never met
before gathering at Lees Ferry to load boats. I am lucky enough to
have been invited along as a passenger by a trip member from
Doug bemoans the hassle of the permit
bureaucracy. "People have put their kids' names on the list as soon
as they are born," he tells me. "That way they might get to do a
trip together before college."
to circumvent the system stems from the fact that the first-come,
first-served waiting list for private permits is now almost 7,000
people deep. Out of desperation for a permit, people have been
caught forging identification, and when the Park Service opened the
phones on the first working day of 1998 to take calls for cancelled
launch dates, all 16 phone lines were jammed for a solid two
Shortly afterward, the park announced
that it wouldn't be doing that again anytime
If you get on the list today, and if
nothing changes, you'll wait about 18 years for your chance. At the
end of that long stint, if you aren't in a retirement home, the
Park Service requests a prioritized list of your 15 preferred
launch dates, which are granted in the order of permit number.
Unless you are very near the top of the pile, getting one of your
top dates is unlikely. But you take what you get, or you don't
By that time, the bureaucracy will have
squeezed $750 from you in permit fees alone - $100 to get on board,
another $200 when you get the permit, and $25 each year for the
required "continuing interest" payment. That's before you've
dropped a dime into food, equipment, travel, or the substantial
park impact fees, starting with a $4/person/night camping charge.
Martin notes that changing the
fee structure has been one of the private boaters' top priorities.
He expects that the Park Service will soon drop its continuing
interest payment in favor of a more streamlined, although not
necessarily cheaper, system.
Outfitters are in control
By contrast, the
commercial outfitters, who pump more than 20,000 clients every year
down the Grand Canyon, are understandably content with the status
quo. Back in 1979, after spending seven years studying river-use
levels, the Park Service split the allocation pie roughly 70
percent to 30 percent in the outfitters' favor. By then the waiting
list for private permits was already in place, and the fees and
burgeoning bureaucratic tangle have been mounting ever
system is terribly broken," agrees Mark Grisham, executive director
of the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association. "But outfitters
spent many years building a successful program. We don't want to
simply transfer the problems of one user group onto another."
The outfitters' group was incorporated in 1996,
and Grisham was appointed to his post at that time. Operating out
of Flagstaff, it is a trade organization representing the 15
outfitters who handle 16 river concession contracts in the Grand
Canyon. As such, the outfitters' association acts as a public
mouthpiece and political lobbying arm. Grisham expresses a
commitment to negotiation with private boaters and the Park
Service, but draws the line when it comes to trimming the
outfitters' share of
"We will fight any
reduction in our allocation," he says.
some of the bitterness expressed by private users is the history of
policy decisions that they believe have benefited commercial
The most significant of these
decisions came in 1980, when the Park Service adopted a new
Colorado River Management Plan that would have phased out motors in
the canyon over a five-year period. A 10-year public review process
had led it to this conclusion.
of the wilderness designation, outfitters were granted an increase
of user-days to compensate for the transformation from fast motor
trips to slower oar trips. Then, in a surprising turn, Sen. Orrin
Hatch, R-Utah, added a rider to a one-year Interior Appropriations
bill that prohibited the Park Service from spending any money to
implement its motor ban.
In the ensuing
political fallout, the Park Service, perhaps under orders from
Interior Secretary James Watt, did a rapid about-face and reversed
its wilderness conclusion about the river corridor. The new plan
avoided the issue of phasing out
"It was pretty
much a major capitulation on the part of the Park Service," says
Kim Crumbo, wilderness coordinator for Grand Canyon National Park.
This time around, he adds, "We're trying to avoid past mistakes by
working our policy through the public process."
An administrative nightmare
Charges of elitism fly both ways. Outfitters claim that only a
select few have the skills, equipment, time and resources to handle
the challenge of a Grand Canyon trip. Further, they question the
safety of private trips that aren't subject to rigorous standards
of quality control.
Private boaters respond by
citing the 7,000-person line willing to put up with a
half-generation-long test of patience, and point out that each name
on the list represents a group of up to 15 more. Moreover, paddle
sports has been one of the strongest growth sectors in the
recreational marketplace over the last 25 years. According to
statistics compiled in a National Survey of Recreation and the
Environment, some 25 million Americans now identify themselves as
canoeists, kayakers and rafters. If even 2 percent of those are
skilled enough to handle the Grand Canyon's rapids, it still
amounts to 500,000 potential users.
boaters charge "financial elitism" and privatization of a public
resource: Commercial clientele routinely ante up $200 to $300 per
day for the thrill and magic of the Colorado River in a catered
groups like the Boy Scouts or outdoor recreation programs?" asks
Tom Martin. "Those are the people who are not even in the picture.
They can't afford an outfitter and they can't wait 20 years."
Private boaters point to other evidence of a
double standard. For example, private groups are limited to a
maximum size of 16, while outfitters are allowed groups of 36,
without counting employees toward the user-day total. As a result,
commercial trips can number as many as 42
Most people agree that there is a stark
difference in ambiance and personal gratification between private
and outfitted trips. Larry Ashcroft, who works for the Arizona
Republic newspaper, and who has participated in one private and
three outfitted Grand Canyon journeys, admits that "it's pretty
hard to have a bad trip in a place like
"But," he adds, "if you
really want to get in deep, private trips are the only way to go."
Ashcroft cites his distaste for "the arrogance
of boatmen who sometimes treat clients like children on outfitted
trips," and he decries the use of helicopters that whisk clients in
and out on four- and five-day
"It's simply a way for
the outfitters to make money," he says. "Here you are at the
absolute pinnacle of beautiful country and you can't even
concentrate on it because of those god-awful
"On the other
hand," Ashcroft says, "I still get choked up when I think back on
my 25-day private float. After the trip ended, the whole group of
us just wandered around aimlessly in Flagstaff. Nobody wanted to
admit that it was really over."
In the end, it
comes down, once again, to the pressure humanity exerts on a unique
and lovely resource; and no one envies the National Park Service
the task of presiding over the fray.
to escalating complaints, the Park Service instigated a lengthy and
thorough review of its Colorado River Management Plan in 1997. The
original timeline called for a document by the spring of 2000, but
the process is already six months behind schedule. When it arrives,
the plan will supplant the one formulated back in
Linda Jalbert, outdoor recreation planner
with Grand Canyon National Park, readily admits to "the glaring
problems with the current system." She summarizes the park's
objectives as twofold. First, to "provide better access to the
resource," and second, "to streamline an administrative process
that has become a nightmare."
Jalbert hopes that the process used to formulate the plan, and the
strategy that comes forth, might "set a precedent for other heavily
used resources in North America." She points to the "development of
a river-use simulation model" as part of the groundbreaking work in
The public comment "scoping phase"
has now been completed. Out of that, the Park Service has organized
a handful of "work groups," made up of stakeholders and citizens,
to tackle a list of target issues.
Service expects that the material produced by the working groups
will lead to an environmental impact statement. That document will
then be exposed to public comment before a policy
"We are making a real
effort to incorporate public involvement throughout this process,"
adds Jalbert. "I feel confident that specific strategies for
handling river use will come out of this more general approach."
the political landscape keeps shifting with the winds of lobbying
pressure. In 1997, for example, the "Outfitters Policy Act" (Senate
Bill 1489) was submitted by Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Ron
Wyden, D-Ore. The bill's first-draft provisions would have locked
in fixed allocation levels for outfitters with stipulations to
prevent future adjustments. The bill also guaranteed helicopter
access to potential wilderness areas, and gave veto powers to
outfitters over any rule changes that might affect their
Public outcry was strident enough
that the bill was returned to committee for review. It is, however,
expected to resurface in the next congressional
The issue of wilderness designation for
the river corridor is a hot potato, not only dividing outfitters
from private boaters, but also non-motorized outfitters from the
majority who powerboat clients in and out of Grand
An 11-year-old nonprofit group that
represents professional boaters, called Grand Canyon River Guides,
has just sent out a questionnaire asking whether the canyon should
become official wilderness. Opinions from 760 guides, as well as
1,100 general members, will be tallied next month. The trend so
far, says Christa Sadler, the group's president, is support for
immediate wilderness or eventual wilderness status, phased in over
"This could change as
more come in," she points out. "It's a pretty polarized issue. No
one is signing their names on the questionnaires."
Now that a new wilderness plan is up for grabs,
"that has opened the door for the public to elevate the issue,"
In fact, there is a gathering
chorus of support for wilderness, expressed by groups including the
Grand Canyon Trust, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, who
argue that the Grand Canyon is the epitome of the kind of place
that should be protected as a natural
Recently, the Grand Canyon Trust
and the private boaters' group sponsored a meeting in Flagstaff
devoted to discussing wilderness designation for the Grand Canyon
river corridor. Eleven conservation organizations attended,
representing 2 million
"The conclusion of an
overwhelming majority of attendees was in favor of wilderness
designation," reports Tom Martin.
director of Conservation Policy for Grand Canyon Trust, says,
"Motors are not essential for outfitted trips, although they
certainly increase the profit margin." He calls the outfitters'
argument against wilderness designation "nothing more than a smoke
The outfitters' group counters that
wilderness designation, if it includes the banning of motors, would
limit public access to this stunning place, putting it out of reach
for thousands of users.
unquestionably the nub of the debate, since 75 percent of
concession river travel is now supported by motorized craft, and
Park Service statistics reveal that more than 50 percent of all
commercial passengers are shuttled in and out by helicopter,
starting or ending their trips at the helicopter landing at
Whitmore Wash, below Lava
"We see ourselves as
purveyors of a wilderness experience," says Grisham, who represents
the outfitters. "We are not averse to talking about wilderness, but
in this case, motors are part of the picture." At the same time,
the outfitters' group is lobbying hard to keep the river corridor
in non-wilderness status, along with side canyons such as the
Little Colorado, Deer Creek and Tapeats Creek.
Grisham says motors on boats are crucial for river companies;
otherwise, passenger loads would drop by as much as 50
"We don't think that
cutting out half the people is reasonable," argues Grisham. "A
large contingent of our clientele is either physically unable, or
simply not interested in coping with the demands of non-motorized
trips." He adds that "our helicopters are only over national park
airspace for about 90 seconds."
stakeholders, including the private boaters, believe that the
passenger reduction would be far less if outfitters would consider
expanding their use window into the "shoulder seasons' in spring
bottom-line drives their argument," says Martin. "They want to
preserve the good thing they have at the expense of the wilderness
quality of the river corridor."
In harmony with the river
my journey we don't even hear a boat motor for more than a week
after I join up. Winter is a relatively quiet time on the Colorado.
For that week we work our way down the gut-tightening whitewater at
rapids like Granite and Crystal and Hermit. We take layover days
during which people hike far into tributary canyons or scramble up
towering layers of sediment. We sleep under the alley of stars
bounded by rims of rock.
Canyon, a peregrine falcon chases bats around the tight chasm at
dusk. Later that night I wake to a rain shower and I scoot under a
slab of sandstone like a big, down-coated lizard to
Through all of it, the immensity of
place, the dwarfing scope of geologic time, and the swirling power
of river works its spiritual magic. As the days pile up, the world
of family and deadlines and bank accounts recedes into some other,
detached compartment of my life.
Then we hear a
motor. It is mid-afternoon when I pick up the drone of engine, the
approaching roar of a big support rig piled deep with gear, and a
moment later, the whine of a smaller sport boat. It happens to be a
science trip doing a siltation study. We chat with them for a time.
They seem like interesting, friendly folks. Then they motor off. I
smell gas fumes for another 10 minutes.
encounter leaves a metallic taste in my mouth, and, to be honest,
puts a slight tarnish on the grandeur that has become such a
constant and overwhelming presence at the bottom of the
What's the big deal? I chastise myself.
They're gone now. But, in a disquieting way, it is a big deal, it
deflates the aura of the place enough to summon up that bitter,
lingering aftertaste. And at that moment I know that the
approaching whop of a helicopter rotor would make bile rise up in
the back of my throat.
Elitist sentiment? If the
Grand Canyon doesn't deserve elite treatment, what does?
Alan Kesselheim freelances
from Bozeman, Mont. His latest book is Threading the Currents,
published this year by Island Press.
You can ...
* comment on the
management dilemmas facing Grand Canyon National Park, or receive
more information, by going to the Colorado River Management Plan
Web site at www.crmp.com, or by contacting Linda Jalbert at
* become a member of the Grand
Canyon Private Boaters Association for $20, and receive their
newsletter, The Waiting List, by contacting GCPBA, Box 2133,
Flagstaff, AZ 86003-2133
* contact Mark
Grisham at 520/556-0669 for more on the outfitter's perspective.
The Grand Canyon River Outfitters' Association Web site is
* contact the Grand Canyon River
Guides at 520/773-1075 (firstname.lastname@example.org), or see their Web site
at vishnu.glg.nau.edu/gcrg. GCRG publishes the Boatman's Quarterly
Review, available for $25 a year, at P.O. Box 1934, Flagstaff, AZ