Agency torpedoes canyon planning

  • Rafters on the Arkansas River in Colorado

    Tim Brown photo

Grand Canyon National Park recently pulled the plug on consensus efforts among private boaters, environmentalists and commercial rafting companies (HCN, 12/21/98: Grand Canyon Gridlock). The outcome could have reduced the number of motorized boats on the river by giving more permits to private rafters and kayakers, and by implementing a wilderness management plan.

The Park Service says discussions had become polarized and contentious, with no resolution in sight. "How much time and taxpayer dollars can we spend on issues that appear unresolvable?" asks Maureen Oltrogge, a spokeswoman for Grand Canyon National Park.

She says the agency wants to wait for Congress to make the decision on wilderness designation. Most of the park, including the river, was first recommended for wilderness more than 20 years ago. Congress has failed to act, allowing commercial guides to speed tourists down the river on motorized rafts.

Environmentalists and private boaters say they are frustrated because Park Superintendent Robert Arnberger has the power to make many of the tough decisions; instead, he's passing the buck to Congress.

"The park is mandated to manage for wilderness experience and they're not doing it," says Kim Crumbo, a former river ranger in the canyon and now a staffer with the Southwest Forest Alliance.

Crumbo charges that guide companies make millions of dollars exploiting a publicly owned treasure while pushing to "dictate what goes on." He says almost 80 percent of river permits go to companies operating motorized trips, while private boaters must wait up to 20 years for a turn on the river.

Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association recently filed a suit against the park in federal court, saying that halting the planning process now silences the public and denies fair access to the river. Some environmental groups say they may also file lawsuits to force wilderness management of the park.

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