Motorized rafts bring the public to enjoy Grand Canyon’s wonders

  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 backcountry travel.

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 whitewater.

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."

Beginning six 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 condition.

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.

Mark Grisham is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is executive director of the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association, a nonprofit trade group based in Flagstaff, Arizona that represents the licensed river-running concessioners operating in Grand Canyon National Park.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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