Woodruff: What if the Grand Canyon were private? An alternate future for the park (column)
January 31, 2016
In the beginning, you didn't need any permits.
OK, that's a slight exaggeration. Even back in the halcyon days of the 1960s, permits were required to backpack in Grand Canyon, but they weren't a big deal. We would drive up after school and bang on the door of park headquarters, whereupon a ranger would clamber down the stairs and hand us a permit.
Cue the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s. Backpacking was the rage, and one Easter weekend, over 1,000 people camped at Grand Canyon's Bright Angel Creek. The Park Service decided it was time to refine the backcountry permitting process. Permits were restricted, group size was limited and campfires banned. Fees were charged for camping, and, over time, the system was tweaked to adjust for increasing visitation and unforeseen difficulties. Yet, all this was never enough: The Grand Canyon backcountry management plan is now undergoing its first overhaul since 1988.
Inevitably, flak is flying from backcountry users. Controversial proposals include limits on rim-to-rim and rim-to-river runner-hikers by requiring permits that cost $5 per person per day. Commercial outfitters could be granted permits one year in advance, as opposed to the four-month window available for the hoi polloi. Campers in the Colorado River zone could be required to pack out their own wastes in what are called "wag bags." Culturally sensitive areas might be closed to visitors.
In certain circles, it is generally believed that the Park Service is simply out to thwart backcountry users. Day treks, the purists proclaim, should never be constrained. Commercial outfitters are commandeering all the permits! No areas need be closed to visitation — ever.
In the early 1900s, Ralph Cameron, a local prospector, agreed with those sentiments. He boasted that he owned over 1,000 mining claims within Grand Canyon. He was not, however, searching for minerals. He wanted land. He blackmailed the Santa Fe Railroad into paying him $40,000 to cross "his" property and sought investors for various developments. Nor was he deterred by the designation of Grand Canyon National Park in 1919. In 1920, he took his case for owning and developing park property to the Supreme Court — and lost. What would have happened, one wonders, had he won that case? Here's one scenario:
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"Welcome to Cameron Land! Whether you wish to take a cog railway ride down to the Colorado River or a gondola to a soaring summit, we have the perfect family vacation for you.
"History: Ralph Cameron, our founder, successfully protected the rights of the individual against an overbearing federal government when he won the rights to develop his mining claims within Grand Canyon. In 1920, he began construction of the cog railway, which allows every American to reach the mighty Colorado River in comfort. Mr. Cameron also provided funicular gondolas to the summits of some of our most exciting buttes, such as Zoroaster and Shiva temples.
"Mr. Cameron was not behindhand with the advent of the automobile. The Bright Angel Toll Road was widened and improved to permit visitors to drive their own vehicles to our sumptuous lodge located at Indian Garden on the scenic Tonto Plateau. There, you and your family may luxuriate in hot springs fed and warmed by our natural uranium deposits. The adventurous traveler may also rent an all-terrain vehicle to explore the Tonto Trail and enjoy the unsurpassed view from Plateau Point.
"Rent a houseboat or try water-skiing on glamorous Lake Steiger, backed up behind the mighty Pete Berry Dam. Try the John Hance Waterslide, a dazzling 1,400-foot drop to our luxurious beach resort located on the Colorado River.
"Craving excitement? Try our bungee jump from Maricopa Point, or the zip line from Hopi Point to Grand Canyon Village. Or take the railroad hugging the Canyon Rim. Don't forget to order the DVD of your bungee jump!
"Cameron Land abuts the mostly undeveloped Grand Canyon National Park. If our visitors venture too closely to the boundary, they may be subjected to glares from antisocial liberal tree-huggers, who think that wilderness is an elitist destination reserved for those who walk in under their own power. Ignore them. The electrified fence will keep them at bay. Cameron Land™ is a subsidiary of Private Investments LLC, buying up American wild lands for 100 years."
Happily, we dodged that bullet, but the pressures on places like Grand Canyon National Park to develop, accommodate expanded uses and commercialize has grown ever stronger. Find out more about the park's new backcountry management plan and draft environmental impact statement at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/. The plan is open for comments until March 4, 2016.
Marjorie "Slim" Woodruff is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is an educator in Grand Canyon National Park.