Colorado River planning<br>to resume with settlement
GC VILLAGE — Nearly two years after former Grand Canyon National Park superintendent Rob Arnberger stopped work on a revised Colorado River Management Plan, all parties involved in a lawsuit over the matter filed a settlement in U.S. District Court on Thursday.
GCNP superintendent Joe Alston hopes all parties can put bad feelings behind them and come to an agreement on the issues.
In the settlement, the National Park Service agreed to restart a public planning process for the 277 miles of the Colorado River and 1.1 million acres of proposed wilderness within the park. The list of issues to be addressed by the Park Service in the renewed planning process includes the use of motorized boats, transporting river passengers via helicopter in proposed wilderness and improving allocations between private and commercial boaters.
"We agree to within 120 days, begin the scoping process," GCNP superintendent Joe Alston said. "We’ll do everything we can to honor terms of the settlement."
The negotiated settlement among the plaintiffs, federal defendants and intervenor requires the initiation of a process within 120 days to update the park’s 1989 Colorado River Management Plan. The NPS will issue a document complying with the National Environmental Policy Act no later than Dec. 31, 2004.
The settlement also commits the NPS to restart a process to review and revise the park’s 1988 Backcountry Management Plan subsequent to the completion of the CRMP.
"The settlement is a victory for all people who care about the Grand Canyon," said Willie Odem, former president of the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association. "It allows the public to regain their voice concerning the future of the Grand Canyon."
The settlement was filed today in federal court in Phoenix, Ariz., and resolves a lawsuit filed in July 2000, by the conservation groups and four individuals. The plaintiffs had challenged former park Superintendent Rob Arnberger’s February, 2000, decision to abandon work on a wilderness plan and a revised Colorado River management plan the park had begun in 1997. The settlement includes a list of issues the Park Service must address in the renewed planning process, such as the use of motorized boats and helicopters to transport river passengers in proposed wilderness and ways to improve access to the river for non-commercial boaters.
"This settlement is significant because now everyone, including the Park Service and commercial river outfitters, agree that an open public planning process is needed and should be restarted," said Richard Martin, president of the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association. "The GCPBA is certain that the simple pursuit of a fair solution within that planning process can only improve the current fate of the private boater."
Former GCPBA president Willie Odem said it’s time to get the process going again.
"It is disappointing to realize that we have actually lost two years in resolving the 20-year wait currently being imposed on the do-it-yourself boater," Odem said. "However, I am thrilled that planning for the future and pursuit of a solution that is fair to all river users is now back on track."
Alston said the first order of business for the park will be to reassemble staff and go back to see what’s applicable through past efforts. A mailing list will be resurrected and the public meetings will be scheduled, at the minimum, for Flagstaff, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Denver.
In February 2000, Arnberger halted work to combine the CRMP and draft Wilderness Management Plan into a single document and stopped further progress on the latter plan until the NPS could analyze the feasibility of successful completion.
At the time, Arnberger based his decision on the difficulty of resolving several issues prior to formal action on the park’s wilderness recommendation and the lack of available fiscal and human resources to complete the comprehensive planning effort.
"In the beginning here, we’re very encouraged that we’ve laid out some of these ground rules and identified a funding source, one reason why my predecessor found it so difficult because it was consuming a lot of the other programs in the park," Alston said. "Hopefully, there’s an understanding with all parties ... that we can all work under the common goal that we want to see the process move forward in a constructive way."
Use of the Colorado River Fund will solves the money problem.
"That fund accumulated a fair chunk of money," Alston said. "The money was used for projects that benefitted those outfitters, such as improved restrooms at Lees Ferry and Pearce Ferry and other projects. After those were completed, that left $2.4 million in the fund. That money was moved over basically into a fund where we put all franchise fee dollars, including from Amfac. But the $2.4 million was originally identified to be used to pay for this planning process."
Parties to the settlement included the NPS (defendant); the GCPBA, American Whitewater, the National Parks Conservation Association, the American Canoe Association, and four private individuals (plaintiffs); and the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association (intervenor defendant).
The Hualapai Indian Tribe, who currently conducts extensive commercial river running operations on the Colorado River in the lower Grand Canyon area, also participated.
"This agreement is vital to preserving over 100 years of river-running tradition," said Jason Robertson, access director for American Whitewater. "Citizens deserve a fair shot at a self-guided wilderness-quality float trip through the Grand Canyon and a quarter-century wait for a private boater permit is unreasonably long."
Mark Grisham, executive director of the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association, called the settlement a "win-win situation."
"The Grand Canyon’s professional river outfitters feel very good about this agreement," Grisham said. "We’re looking forward to tackling longstanding issues and finding solutions. It’s time to move forward. This agreement is an example of what can be accomplished through constructive discussion. We hope the pattern of respectful dialog and mutual consideration can continue throughout the planning process."
Alston said this issue has consumed a lot of the park’s time and energy since he came on board in late 2000.
"I understand the frustrations my predecessor went through," Alston said. "I hope it’s a constructive program and process. I appreciate the difficulties befallen on the plaintiffs here and the compromises they had to make to move forward as well."