Canyon mule rides under the microscope
Environmental assessment for mule operations is now available to the public
GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - The public will be invited to speak and provide comments today and tomorrow on an environmental assessment for mule operations and stock use within the Grand Canyon. Today's meeting will be held on the Grand Canyon's North Rim from 4-6 p.m. The North Rim meeting will be held in Kanab, Utah, at the Holiday Inn Express, located at 217 South 100 East. Tomorrow's public meeting will be held in Flagstaff from 4-6 p.m. at Little America Hotel, 2515 E. Butler Ave. The first of three public meetings was held March 22 at the South Rim.
Officials with the National Park Service (NPS) announced the availability of an Environmental Assessment for mule operations in Grand Canyon National Park March 16. The 142-page document is currently available for review and comment. A 45-day review period began March 16.
The preferred alternative to current mule operations would cut the number of visitors that ride mules into the Canyon in half, according to Rachel Bennett, NPS environmental Protection specialist. Mule trips to Plateau Point, however, would cease altogether. Riders would be allowed a different experience, however, in above rim rides, Bennett said.
"The South Rim, historically, we've allowed 20 riders going down to Plateau Point every day and then back up, and then 20 riders going to Phantom Ranch every day. What we're looking at now is only allowing 10 riders to Phantom Ranch each day," Bennett said. "We're cutting the Phantom Ranch rides pretty much in half with our proposal and then not allowing for a Plateau Point ride at all, which was offered in the past. The Phantom Ranch is an overnight ride. You go down the Bright Angel, spend the night and then come up the South Kaibab."
Xanterra South Rim L.L.C. runs mule operations on the South Rim of the park. Canyon Trail Rides offers operations on the North Rim.
"In the assessment we looked at five different alternatives," Bennett said. "In the alternatives we analyzed for what the impacts would be on natural and cultural resources, visitor experiences and also the socio-economics. I would say, in general, the concessioners would be affected by the socio-economic piece and some of the changes to the number of the rides that the park would be allowing. I'm hoping that the Canyon Trail Rides on the North Rim would not be adversely affected by the changes that we're proposing, although their operations would be limited and a little bit different than they have been in the past, I think that our proposal still allows for quite a bit of opportunity for visitors and also for the concessioner. In order to implement any change, it really does need to be feasible to our concessioners. We don't want to implement anything that would put them out of business obviously, because we want something that will be good for our visitors and also feasible."
The plan would allow for some growth on both the South and North Rims, Bennett said.
"The difference on the South Rim is that we would be allowing an above rim ride, which we haven't really done in the past," she said. "Historically all of the mule rides have really been going down into the Canyon. What we're looking at is a total of 10,000 rides, but that's both between the inner Canyon and the rim, so we'd have approximately 3,500 maybe going down into the Canyon as a maximum and then the rest of the 10,000 would be on the rim, for the South Rim. For the North Rim, we haven't had limits on their rides in the past. It allows for a little bit of growth on what they've averaged for the last eight years."
According to a March 16 press release from the National Park Service (NPS), the purpose of the environmental assessment was to determine the impacts of commercial, private and administrative mule use. Concession contracts for mule operations have also come up for renewal, which led to the assessment on the animal's impact and other concerns. Private stock use is allowed on a number of the Canyon's trails, including the Bright Angel, River and Plateau Point trails, though back country permits are needed. Other restrictions, such as camping and feed restrictions, also apply for mule operations. Mule rides have been in operation at the Grand Canyon for over 100 years. Park officials have been looking at the impact of mule operations for over a year, as the animals are responsible for costly maintenance on a number of the Canyon's trails. Cost for trail maintenance is estimated at $1.5 million to $2 million annually, according to Bennett.
"Because we have such a backlog of maintenance, we really need more than that to start making some headway on the rehabilitation of the trails. We really haven't been able to maintain them as much as we need to," Bennett said. "We have several main corridor trails, those are the Bright Angel, South Kaibab and North Kaibab Trails, and they receive a lot of use, both from hikers and stock users. They've been deteriorating over a number of years. They were built mostly in the 1920s and '30s, although there were some routes into the Canyon," Bennett said. "They really haven't been able to be maintained well over the past 60, 70, 80 years."
Bennett said there was a lot of information in the assessment that may prove useful to anyone interested in the mule operations and stock use. There are currently around 200 mules located at the South Rim.
"I would encourage folks to pick it up and take a look," Bennett said. "It provides sort of the basis for the proposal and why we think it's a good solution to the problems we're facing. The first chapter sort of outlines the background of stock use and some of the challenges that the park faces with maintaining trails, particularly the corridor trails, and it outlines some of the objectives that we would like to accomplish through this plan. In the next chapter we developed five different alternatives; one is to continue with current plans. So there were really four different alternatives that would meet our objectives. In chapter three we go through and analyze each of those alternatives and analyze what the impacts would be to soils, or to wildlife, or socio-economic impacts, visitor experience, wilderness character, a variety of different impact topics."
She said the difference between stock use and mule operation includes facilities in the area and other animals that are also in use at the Canyon.
"In my mind, there's the operation itself, which to me includes the infrastructure that the stock might be housed in, the mule barns on the South Rim, other pieces of the operation, infrastructure like pitch rails and things like that," Bennett said. "The stock use includes horses and burros as well, which are the other types of stock that we do allow in the Canyon. I should add, too, that we do have some horseback rides that occur over on Tuweep, which is on the north side out toward the western end of the park."
Bruce Brossman, director of reservation sales with Xanterra's Grand Canyon Railway, said the concessioner stays neutral on public comment periods with the National Park Service.
"We work for the park service under a contract," Brossman said. "The contract does say that the operating plan can be changed any time by the park service. We'll just adjust our operations accordingly."
In some aspects, such as allowing a higher weight limit for passengers on above rim rides, Brossman said the rides may even be better for certain portions of the public. He said the rides may also offer less of a physical impact than the longer rides into the Canyon.
"I think people are just fascinated by the mules themselves," Brossman said. "People can actually be 225 pounds on that shorter abyss ride."
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