Grand Canyon backcountry management plan: Comment Now

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Last week Grand Canyon National Park released a draft of their next backcountry management plan.  These plans are enormously important; they’re detailed and comprehensive, and set in place policies which are not easily changed and for a variety of reasons are generally not altered for decades.  Which options the park service decides to adopt will potentially have big impacts on how we backpack, canyoneer, climb, packraft, and even bike and trail run in the Grand Canyon for some time to come.

The executive summary, full text, and a link to the comment form can all be found here.  What follows is a summation of a few issues dealt with in the plan which I find most immediate and interesting, as well as some information to place these issues in context, and of course my opinions.

It is worth noting that the NPS did a good job with just about everything pertaining to the executive summary except making it short.  If you prefer to not dive into the full 618 pages of the draft the exsum will not take you far wrong.

As is typical with such documents, the draft management plan contains 4 options.  Option A is to take no action, B is the middle of the road “preferred alternative” the NPS will most likely adopt baring vociferous comment, option C takes what I would call a more liberal approach to recreation and visitation restrictions, while option D is more restrictive (and by implication, fairly or unfairly, more environmentally conservative).  This nomenclature is essential for comprehension.

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For me the most significant issue in the management plan will deal with is packrafting, or as the NPS clumsily calls it river-assisted backcountry travel (RABT).  Currently an interim rule limits packrafting on a backpacking trip (i.e. with a backcountry, not river, permit) to 5 miles total.  The crucial background here is that the river and river-only trips in the Grand Canyon are managed via a separate management plan, with myriad and powerful stakeholders.  I’m not aware of the NPS explicitly admitting it, but the bifurcation in the plan admits it as plainly as a backdoor makes possible: the river in Grand Canyon National Park is not Wilderness or wilderness, and is not managed as such.  My own opinions on this are extreme and polarizing, so I’ll refrain from pontification and just note that the boater lobbies are not something the NPS is keen to mess with.  There are certain factions who view packrafters as interlopers, and that was a view which had to be taken into account when the draft plan was written.

Option B divides the 277 miles of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon into 31 zones, between 2.6 and 25 miles long (mean of 9.4 miles).  To quote the draft: “Because RABT is primarily a means of accessing backcountry routes across the river, downstream, or upstream, and not a whitewater rafting trip, RABT trips would be limited to one river section per permitted trip or two river sections if on different days. Multiple river crossings within the same river section may be approved if the permitted itinerary so requires.”  Four shorter sections are closed to packrafting under any circumstances. The table listing these 31 sections is on pages 57-8 of the full draft.

Option C has language identical to option B, but features 11 river segments which average 29.5 miles (table on page 62).  It retains three of the four closed sections (the first 4.8 miles down from Lee’s Ferry, 2.7 miles from roughly the South Kaibab suspension bridge downstream, and 4.7 miles from Tapeats Creek to Fishtail Creek).  It gets rid of the fourth closed section, 3.3 miles between Granite and Boucher Creeks.  It also stipulates that any floating downstream from Diamond Creek (the traditional boater takeout) would require a river permit, something not noted in option B.  While I have no personal experience in doing so, I do not believe Diamond-down river permits are difficult to get.

Option D would maintain the current regulations, but extend the per-trip limit to 11 miles.  It would retain the three closed areas in option C, as well as the necessity of having a river permit for floating below Diamond.

The elephant in the room is that somewhat contrary to the NPS protestations, packrafting in the Grand Canyon won’t always be in pool toys and strictly for utilitarian purposes (i.e. when you can’t do the trip without them).  Folks will do trips to enjoy both challenging hiking and beautiful whitewater.  The question is which alternative will facilitate this to an extent which won’t piss off the boater lobbies too much, and will do fairness to the substantial investment said boaters have to make in permit fees and the lottery system.  Frankly, I don’t have enough boating experience in the Grand Canyon to comment on how substantive the differences between B and C are.  I do assume that D would not allow for enough latitude for the next 2-3 decades of human creativity, and that a backcountry itinerary request which was obviously a 50 mile float with short hikes on either end would be referred to the river permit system.

I do decry the short closed sections, and especially the spirit  behind them.  Tapeats to Fishtail is the obvious one: this closure eliminates packrafting from being a part of two popular loop hikes, Tapeats-Deer, and Deer-Kanab.  Substantial use trails exist for all of the river section o the former, and much of the later, though they are rugged.  My objection is that packrafting on a limit basis for these hikes is doing no harm, and is a far simpler, stylish, and more enjoyable way to travel.  I see no reason (other than appeasing the boating lobbies?) for this closure.  I also worry that the Diamond-down river permit requirement would be an unneeded imposition on loops in the far western Grand Canyon, though I imagine it would apply to very few trips, even well into the future.

If any readers have more specific input on these issues, especially how the zone boundaries in options B and C might affect trips, I’d be glad to hear it.

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Rules for canyoneering are rather less significant in the draft plan, irrespective of the option ultimately chosen.  Options, B, C, and D would all put in place requirements for approval of new fixed anchors (read: bolts), require canyoneering to be identified on a backcountry permit and for the specific routes to be noted (for informational purposes), and mandate a maximum group size of six.  It would also allow for future “adaptive management” that might put more location-specific rules in place on a case by case basis.  The alternatives do specifically address the lower Deer Creek narrows, a short technical slot in a (to river runners) visible location that has been closed to canyoneering for several years.  Option B would make the closure permanent, option C would dissolve the closure entirely, and option D would make the closure permanent and restrict access by boating parties to the upper end of the slot.

I don’t see this changing the status quo all that much, except for certain canyons which are accessible as day or shorter overnight trips (Garden) or end up being the cause of lots of rescues (Cove).  I do expect the aforementioned data gathered from more specific permits to pave the way for a specific, canyoneering management plan in the intermediate future.  I’m not what to make of the Deer Creek closure, other than to note that for me the NPS doesn’t make a compelling case as to why it should be closed.  I’m interested to see just how popular canyoneering ever gets in the Grand Canyon.  The routes are gorgeous, but almost always require hauling a heavy pack a long ways on rough ground, and with a few exceptions the pure slot quality is far behind stuff elsewhere on the Colorado Plateau.

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It would seem that since we moved away from Arizona seven years ago day hiking rim to rim (I assume almost always north to south) has exploded in popularity, with many “unorganized” groups facilitating logistics and providing moral support.  Dig into the NPS morning report and the number of rescues related to folks in over their head on this “straightforward” 21 mile hike is impressive.  Until last year there were no regulations whatsoever concerning dayhiking, and it’s clear that this is a big issue for the NPS.  While they surely know the practice exists, double crossing (rim to rim to rim) is not mentioned explicitly, though these runs/hikes would fall under any rules which would apply to single crossings.  The NPS proposes to implement “seasonally” a mandatory permit with fee (“at least 5 dollars”) for anyone going (in short) further than 5 miles from any of the three rim trailheads.  Dependent on what the numbers this permit revealed, day use caps might be put in place (250 people per day is tentatively proposed).  The 30 person group limit put in place last year would be extended.

Of all the things in the draft this is the one I find most appalling.  Simply put this is a problem which would not exist without the twin evils of people getting in over their head trying to “tick” a dayhike which isn’t that easy but isn’t that hard (and hint, south to north is easier), and of ultrarunners not bothering to recognize they’re going into a wild area without aid stations.  Both groups deserve a kick in the ass for allowing things to come to the point where permits for dayhiking will almost certainly happen.  This is truly unfortunate because while the Grand Canyon is a serious place, it is not mythological.  Hiking south rim to river and back is a big hike, with over 3500 vertical feet of descending and climbing over 14 to 18 miles depending on the route, but it is well within the abilities of plenty of folks who are not serious hikers.  You just need good fitness, shoes that fit, and the common sense to drink properly, pace yourself, and not go in July (or if you do, go at night).  To reformulate this point in an even less tolerant way, this is example number one of REI yuppies trying to buy what only experience, intelligence, and skill can give you, and in the process making the outdoors seem way too complex and expensive.  I’d love to see the NPS ban any sort of commercial organization for dayhiking these corridor trails, and reduce group size to 10.  If you can’t do these hikes without the moral support of a bunch of strangers from Facebook or MeetUp you should not be there.

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There is lots of other important stuff in the draft plan, some of which I’ll point you towards.  I’m encouraged to see the NPS talking about opening the old boundary road to Pasture Wash to bikes, stock and vehicles, which would serve the dual purpose of providing a potentially less snowy winter and spring access point and prevent the Havasupai from charging folks 25 bucks (in 2008) to drive over 10 miles of their land.  The section of the AZ trail inside the north rim section of the park will also, finally, be open to bikes, providing a vaguely scenic, aspen-lined fireroad alternative to the aspen-lined pavement within earshot.  The backcountry camping zones in the Deer/Tapeats areas will be reworked to spread out and possibly reduce the number of people there during popular times, which judging by the state of the campsites is a good preventative measure.  Controlling the number of dayhiking boaters would be a useful part of this if it could be within the scope of the plan.  And lastly it seems likely that a few end of crappy road campgrounds/sites will be established (ex. 150 Mile trailhead) for the nights before backpacking trips, a nice logistical gesture which will probably only codify what everyone already does.

Grand Canyon National Park has a tough job.  It is one of the busiest, one of the most rugged, one of the most fragile, and one of the best, national parks the US has.  Stakes are high when it comes to desert flora and fauna, as well as ephemeral cultural artifacts and fragile cave ecosystems.  Then there are the myriad user groups, massive tourist presence, and the absurd developments actual and potential.  With all that taken into consideration, I think this draft backcountry plan is a pretty good document.  It certainly contains more than enough information for any reader to be well on their way towards making an informed decision.  I intend to submit my comments, and I encourage all of you to do the same.

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