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Fri, June 05

Opinions over river rights<br>shared at NPS open house <br>

FLAGSTAFF — Over the past 20 years, Grand Canyon National Park superintendent Joe Alston has taken the equivalent of four trips down the Colorado River. He’s been on a waiting list for a private trip for nine years now and hopes to see that venture materialize in the next year or two.

Chris Storey of Moab, Utah, writes down an opinion Thursday evening in Flagstaff during a National Park Service open house on the Colorado River Management Plan. Storey is a volunteer for the organization, Living Rivers, which has been vocal about extinct and near-extinct fish species in the river.

"I’ve been on a lot of different rivers throughout the country," Alston said. "I actually guided a couple of trips, not in the Canyon but up in Alaska."

So when it comes to Colorado River issues, Alston definitely has a high interest. In fact, he’s called the Colorado River Management Plan one of his biggest priorities of his superintendency.

But Alston said it’s not difficult to approach river issues with an unbiased, objective attitude. He can see why private boaters want more access while also agreeing that commercial trips serve a purpose.

"I could make an argument for both," Alston said at Thursday’s CRMP open house at Coconino Community College in Flagstaff. "If I wanted to, I could make passionate arguments on both sides. I’m pretty neutral on the whole thing."

There were some who were making passionate arguments at the Flagstaff event. More than 200 people turned out for the open house to discuss river issues with Alston and other GCNP notables.

"People feel passionate about the river," Alston said. "Even in Salt Lake City, we had a lot of folks, a few more than in Denver."

Several issues were brought up during the open house with the system of allocating boating permits being one of the main topics of discussion.

Richard Martin, Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association president, said the big issues for his organization involve allocation and access.

"I feel a 50-50 share is appropriate," Martin said, referring to commercial-to-private allocations. "There are a lot of things that could probably be done. There are a lot of ideas out there."

The GCPBA made a proposal that would give the first 500 people on the current waiting list the first chance to sign up on a reservation calendar. After two months, those 500 names would be removed and the next 500 would get a chance.

Under the plan, there would be $25 credits for those on the waiting list going toward river trip fees and no registration fee would be required.

Martin said there are 7,600 individuals on the waiting list now, which represents more than 121,000 potential trip participants.

"Are we maxed out now?" Martin said about the allocations. "Should it be less, more, we’ll try to focus on that."

Mark Grisham, executive director of Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association, which represents the 16 commercial river trip operators, said there are problems with the current allocation system. Grisham said before looking at a 50-50 split, the NPS needs to come up with criteria so an apples-apples comparison can be made for those allocations.

As for commercial trips, Grisham said that is a definite issue relating to public access.

"We can do a trip in six to eight days," Grisham said. "For some, that’s a comforting thing. For our disabled partners, it’s essential. A lot of people have more of a sense of security on a commercial trip."

On the average, it takes six days for the average commercial trip, compared to 18 days on a private boat. The 16 commercial outfitters had 18,685 paying customers in 2001 with 15,000 of those in rafts powered with small four-stroke engines.

The whole issue over motors on the Colorado River has been presented as a major issue, but Alston said he’s heard otherwise.

"I’ve been surprised by how many people who have come up to me and think motors are not a major issue," Alston said. "Some folks are still very passionate about that and there are people concerned about motors. That’s tied to the whole wilderness issue. There are folks who don’t like to hear motors down there."

In 1980, the NPS proposed most of Grand Canyon’s backcountry for wilderness designation. The river was included in the proposal, pending the resolution of motorboat issues. Today, no official designation exists for the park.

However, the park is specifically required to manage any pending wilderness as if it were designated "... to the extent that existing nonconforming uses allow." The environmental impact statement will evaluate the level and amount of motorized raft use, including a "no-motors" alternative.

Another issue not as visible involves the use of helicopters in the river corridor. For example, there’s a growing operation at the Whitmore Wash helipad on Hualapai Tribe land. Alston said a lot of river trips end there with passengers flying out to a spot at Ten-X Ranch to the north.

"A lot of river runners don’t like that because of the loud operation," Alston said. "They’ve developed quite a commercial operation that has evolved."

The CRMP will evaluate the appropriate amount and level of helicopter use through the EIS process.

Some point to commercial air tours as another issue involving the river corridor. However, that issue is to be addressed in a separate planning effort. The NPS and Federal Aviation Administration were directed to work together to develop a plan to achieve "natural quiet" at the Canyon.

In the meantime, the river management plan’s EIS is expected to establish goals and objectives for the river corridor which offer opportunities for visitor solitude and primitive recreation.

Others show concern about the river’s health. The management plan’s EIS is expected to reveal relationships between Colorado River recreation and resource goals and Glen Canyon Dam operations that may have implications for dam releases.

"A lot of people here don’t seem to be concerned about the river at all," said John Weisheit of Living Rivers, on organization concerned about the river’s ecosystem in the post-Glen Canyon Dam era. "No one is interested that the river is dying ... this isn’t about managing a national park, it’s about destroying a national park. They don’t seem to want to talk about if it’s going to be here in 20 years. I don’t know if it’ll be here in five years."

Scores of people offered opinions through various methods at the open house. All of the information will be analyzed and alternatives will be offered through the EIS process.

Alston said a preferred alternatives will be identified sometime next year and by the end of 2004, he hopes to have a record of decision, which will impact concessions contracts.

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