Safety of mule rides led to suspension
“We’ve had a couple of pack mule accidents ... some of those were trail related,” Johnston said.
The National Park Service’s chief of concessions Nick Hardigg said the declining conditions on the trails have been a concern for years. But a lack of materials and funds have not allowed maintenance. This past spring, the NPS approved such a project utilizing $1.5 million in franchise fee funds, which involves fees paid from concessioners to the Park Service.
The timing of when to start the trail maintenance was pushed along by Xanterra.
“Xanterra approached us with safety concerns,” Hardigg said. “There were concerns that even through the trails weren’t giving way and there were no immediate concerns, there was the potential for someone to get hurt. They felt the trails were in bad enough condition that those safety concerns were growing.”
The NPS and Xanterra got together to make a plan and the mule ride operations ceased last month. Officials are estimating a minimum of six months for the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails to be off limits to passenger mules.
“We did a reconnaissance trip down the trails to look at the worst areas and came up with a game plan,” Hardigg said. “It had been something on our radar screen for a while, however, we’re not the experts on how operations are going when on mules. When Xanterra approached us in September and said things are getting worst ... we decided we would kick it into high gear.”
Hardigg said 30 people from the NPS are working on the project, a considerable increase over those who have been assigned to trail maintenance in the past. Xanterra has increased its typical crew from four to six.
“We’re still evaluating what other options we have for partnering where Xanterra might help us,” Hardigg said. “Potentially, they could help with the movement of supplies, but we don’t have a formal agreement. We’re looking into it.”
Hardigg said there are no promises that operations will resume in six months, it could be longer.
“We anticipate we’ll be able to begin passenger operations as they were before,” Hardigg said. “Xanterra does have a contractual requirement to perform these operations. We have no plans to change the operations.”
Johnston and Hardigg both made reference to there being no hidden agenda on the future of mule trips.
“This has been going on for a hundred years, it’s part of the General Management Plan,” Hardigg said. “It’s our plan to continue having them offered. Some have approached us saying this is just the first step in getting rid of mule operations ... absolutely not. We like the mule operations, they’re not universally loved by the public, but we feel they’re an important operation here and they will continue.”
Johnston said it was difficult for Xanterra to make the recommendation to cease operations.
“It was a tough decision for us to make that recommendation ... we had a lot of fallout with boys no longer having jobs and disappointed and angry visitors who had trips cancelled,” Johnston said.
Hardigg said he’s proud of the safety record on the trips.
The suspension of mule operations applies only to tourists. Pack mule operations continue, but those involve people with increased skill levels with the animals.