WASHINGTON – Grand Canyon National Park is still open, but the same cannot be said for lodging and food services in the park that will be shuttered for the next two months by concerns over the novel coronavirus.
Grand Canyon Lodging on Thursday announced the “difficult decision” to suspend operations beginning at noon Friday and continuing through at least May 21.
The company, citing recent decisions in some jurisdictions to close bars and restaurants to help stem the spread of COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, said the decision was made out of concern for the health and safety of its employees and customers.
“This decision was not easy, and we recognize the significant impact on your travel plans. But we know that this is the responsible path forward to help slow the spread of the disease,” said a company statement, adding that Grand Canyon Lodging was “deeply sorry” for the disruption.
The announcement is just one of several affecting services at the park, which remains open. Delaware North announced this week that services at Yavapai Lodge and at Trailer Village would close Sunday, while park officials have halted shuttle service and closed the South Rim store and visitor stations, among other changes.
The Grand Canyon Lodging announcement comes one day after Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said entry fees at all open national parks would be waived until further notice.
“This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible national parks,” Bernhardt said in a statement Wednesday.
He said the change would also improve “social distancing,” a key strategy to prevent the spread of the virus, by reducing interactions between park workers and visitors. Bernhardt encouraged visitors to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines by washing hands frequently, keeping a safe distance from others, covering coughs and sneezes and avoiding touching your nose, eyes or mouth.
Requests Thursday for comment from National Park Service officials in Washington and Arizona were not immediately returned.
But some advocates said that while waiving fees is a good step, it should not be done just to make parks more accessible if that will lead to greater interaction between people.
“We remain concerned about the health and safety of park staff and visitors and strongly urge everyone to follow the guidance of public health experts before planning a trip to any park, in order to protect themselves and their communities,” Theresa Pierno, the president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement Wednesday.
Jeff Ruch, Pacific director of PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, charged that the Trump administration “seems to want to convey a sense of normalcy, even when it is not justified” with the decision to keep parks open.
“We don’t think the decisions are being made by park professionals. We think they are being made by senior political officials,” Ruch said.
As park services are trimmed back, businesses and residents in the area said they are starting to feel the pinch from COVID-19.
Although some restaurants are reporting brisk business, understaffing and a lack of resources are the biggest hindrance to area businesses, said Laura Chastain, general manager of the Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce. She said work attendance has already dropped by 50%, as employees choose to take leave, and that some businesses in the area are encountering “supply issues.”
The town’s local foodbank, which was restocked Wednesday, ran out of food almost immediately, she said.
“Yesterday, it ran out of food within an hour,” she said. Even with emergency funding that will be coming from local and federal governments, the food bank might struggle to get supplies because “it is coming up from Phoenix and there are no volunteers down there to load the trucks.”
PHOENIX – Electric vehicle owners can now drive to Grand Canyon National Park without worrying about dead batteries, thanks to new charging stations on the South Rim that opened to the public in late August.
Park visitors can now charge their EVs at six stations located around the park, including Yavapai Lodge, Canyon Village Market and Maswik North, the National Park Service said in a recent news release. In addition, NPS said, five charging stations were installed at the Grand Hotel in the gateway community of Tusayan and at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel in Williams.
The project – a joint effort by BMW of North America, which donated the charging stations, the Department of Energy, the NPS and the National Park Foundation – adds to a growing network of EV chargers in northern Arizona.
“The automobile has long been central to the great American vacation in national parks,” P. Daniel Smith, deputy director of the National Park Service, said in the same release. “While our treasured landscapes offer familiar vistas time after time, the automobile has changed greatly, and parks want to meet the needs of our visitors who use electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. … Electric vehicle drivers will have more places to charge the car while recharging themselves with nature and parks.”
David Perkins, the sustainability director for Xanterra Travel Collection Grand Canyon, which operates restaurants, hotels and lodges in the park, said a number of factors were taken into account when deciding site locations, such as accessibility, number of visitors and the opportunity to get people to the park from travel hubs, including Phoenix.
“So they (BMW of North America) said they couldn’t do the in-park stations without also having en route going on,” Perkins said. “So I think that was a factor, you know, how well they could build the infrastructure, leading to the parks also.”
Perkins said one drawback to owning an electric vehicle is finding places to recharge.
Visitors’ feedback has been positive, he said, adding that he recently spoke with a Xanterra hotel guest who was considering purchasing an electric vehicle and had rented a Tesla to visit the Canyon.
“He was really grateful for a place to plug in, and said that if he’s going to be an electric vehicle driver in the future, then he’s hoping that more entities will try to do what’s happening in the park and add infrastructure for charging,” Perkins said.
The partnership, which began in 2017, intends to install 100 EV charging stations in and around 13 national parks across the United States, according to NPS.
Along with the BMW charging stations in Williams, travelers can also utilize a number of Tesla charging stations on their way to the Grand Canyon and around the Flagstaff area.
The Courtyard Marriott in Flagstaff houses 12 Tesla Superchargers, which can charge a Tesla up to 80% capacity in about 30 minutes. The catch is that, unlike Tesla Destination Chargers, which can charge other EVs with an adapter, the Superchargers only charge Tesla vehicles.
Jennifer Reyes, general manager of the Courtyard Marriott Flagstaff, said the goal is to reduce the hotel’s environmental impact as well as the popularity of the location, near the junction of Interstates 17 and 40.
“You can get to pretty much any state from our location,” Reyes said. “(If) you go to California and Albuquerque – you name it – you pretty much have to come through this area, and then with Route 66 and everything that Flagstaff has to offer, it just kind of makes sense.”
Ken Sweat, a principal lecturer at Arizona State University who has studied environmental science, endangered species and plant biology, said the transportation sector is one of the largest sources of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.
“Let’s be honest, we’re not giving up our cars, but we can have cars with all the horsepower and all the things we want, that don’t burn fossil fuels,” Sweat said. “And making them easier for people to use with things like chargers at the Grand Canyon and access to that kind of infrastructure is going to increase the acceptance of that technology by other people.”
Perkins said Xanterra plans for more than half of its vehicle fleet to be either hybrid or electric by the end of 2021, and it’s also expecting more requests for charging stations.
“I know that in our build of Maswik South, the new hotel, that we’re allowing for infrastructure to be in places that it will be easy for us to install charging stations in the future, as the demand increases,” Perkins said. “So we’re prepared for the likelihood that it will occur.”
Sweat said any moves to reduce the localized impacts of auto pollution is important for future enjoyment of the parks, especially with the increase in visitors to national parks.
“I tell you personally, going to the canyon with my family growing up (are) some of the best memories I have,” he said, “and to be able to keep allowing families to build those kinds of memories, we’ve got to make sure that we’re not radically altering the planet and making that place unrecognizable from what it was in the past.”
BMW of North America donated the new charging stations to the Grand Canyon and other parks across the country , such as Olympic National Park, Everglades National Park, and Cape Cod National Seashore, from Washington to Florida.
The first round of stations were installed at Thomas Edison National Historic Park in New Jersey after the launch of the project in April 2017.
PHOENIX – Tourism continues to expand in Arizona, a boon for jobs, development and tax revenue, but the growth presents challenges to preserving the natural beauty drawing visitors to the state.
“It just really appears that there is a problem as far as people management,” said Alicyn Gitlin of the Sierra Club. “But it’s a fine line because you want people to have access to this place that belongs to all of us.”
The tensions between economic driver and environmental impact are revealed in the numbers of dollars and people, both of which reach into the millions. Tourists generate jobs and tax revenue, some of which is spent on advertising to lure even more tourists and build the roads and other infrastructure needed to accommodate them. Selfie culture and social media increases such strains as littering and overuse on the most picturesque sites, and visitors forego the excitement of exploring the unfamiliar in favor of social media likes.
In 2018, for the first time in Arizona history, more than 45 million tourists generated more than $1 billion in state tax revenue, surpassing the record set the previous year by 8%, according to the Arizona Office of Tourism. These visitors help support about 200,000 jobs and provide $7.4 billion in earnings for Arizona workers.
Flagstaff is one of the primary destinations for visitors, enticing tourists with its craftbeerscene, connection to lunar missions, Route 66 nostalgia, proximity to Lowell Observatory and, above all, its status as a portal to Arizona’s natural splendors. The city’s proximity to the Grand Canyon, the nation’s largest ponderosa pine forest and the red rocks of Sedona is a large part of why visitors from across the globe spend more than $500 million each year in Flagstaff, according to a 2017-18 tourism study from the Arizona Office of Tourism.
Debbie Johnson, director of the Arizona Office of Tourism, said tourism spending in Arizona reduces each resident’s tax burden by more than $1,300 per year.
“Tourism revenue is a big chunk of their government provided services,” Johnson said. To maintain their same level of service for residents “in Coconino County, it would be $3,000 more a household.”
In Flagstaff, 5 million annual visitors provide 8,000 jobs, said Meg Roederer, spokeswoman for Discover Flagstaff, the city’s tourism agency. And much of the money collected from the bed, board and beverage tax that tourists pay is spent developing infrastructure to help absorb the increased traffic.
“If you’re dining in our restaurants, if you’re staying in our hotels, you are going to be contributing to our economy,” Roederer said. “Our parks and recreation department gets a portion of it, public art … and arts and sciences education programming for students.”
Some of the money also goes back into the city’s visitor center, tour guides and media operation Roederer said.
Where’s that Tree I Saw on Instagram?
Gitlin, conservation coordinator for the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter, worries the promotion of natural wonders in Arizona could threaten the picturesque wilderness tourists are clambering to see for themselves.
“People are seeing more photos online and they are going to specific locations instead of wandering and distributing themselves around,” Gitlin said. “There are a few sites that tend to get a lot of impact.”
Gitlin was hesitant to give examples, lest the publicity attract further traffic to the sites, but she did mention End of the World, a popular campsite in Coconino National Forest. The often promoted site sits at the end of a 29-mile road, which Gitlin warns makes proper safety and etiquette even more of a priority.
People crave the experience being sold to them through marketing and advertising, she said. When everyone gravitates to the same locations, the heavy foot traffic may trample the local flora or lead to increased litter.
The power of marketing can pressure local infrastructure beyond its capabilities.
“Flagstaff started marketing itself as … Arizona’s winter wonderland,” Gitlin said. “And all of a sudden, all of these people came up and they wanted to play in the snow. There’s really not a lot of infrastructure to direct people to places where they can safely play in the snow. And so what they end up doing is crowding the highways, crowding the roads, and participating in unsafe activities.”
For Gitlin, this advertising problem isn’t limited to tourism boards. The rise of selfie culture and social media plays a huge part in tourists flocking to iconic wilderness sites.
“I’ve heard of hiking guides who have said their clients come in, and they’re like, ‘Where’s the tree?’” she said. “You know, the tree that everybody’s got the picture of on Instagram?”
Some people have noticed this problem and have creatively utilized social media to address it.
“A lot of people I know have recently started using ‘#somewhere,’” Gitlin said. “Which is, I think, a really nice way of inspiring people to go out and explore on their own.”
She noted that the plugged-in culture can also negate the whole point of visiting these spots for tourists, too.
“That’s not why you’re here – to get to get that one picture,” she said. “People need to visit these areas and be able to turn off their electronics and be in nature. I mean, there’s so many health effects that are being shown from being in places where you’re surrounded by natural landscapes.”
Leave No Trace
With the Museum Fire burning more than 1,800 acres in the Dry Lake Hills area north of Flagstaff and limiting access to many sites in the Coconino National Forest, Gitlin said overcrowded areas are an even greater problem.
Still, many of the strains tourists put on nature can be mitigated through education.
“It’s a tricky question, because you want to get people into nature. You want them to learn to love it,” Gitlin said. “But you also want them to love it in a way that’s going to leave it better than when they came.”
She wants to see schools teaching respect for nature at an early age; she is even more eager to see adults practice good stewardship.
Simple things like sticking to paths, “picking up your trash, taking time to look at the stars, instead of having to have a campfire every time you’re outside,” would go a long way, she said.
“If you do have a campfire, make sure that you have ample water and a shovel on you that you’re able to put it out,” she added. “Put your hand on it and make sure that it’s cool to the touch before you leave it, not leaving it burning overnight.”
Discover Flagstaff is aware of the potential problems with increased tourism and seeks to be proactive, promoting “eco-tourism,” a sustainable approach to visitation.
“As far as preservation of our area and responsible tourism, we do market a ‘stay and play responsibly’ messaging for our visitors,” Roederer said. “If you pack it in, you pack it out, you leave no trace.”
Discover Flagstaff’s website touts many of the city’s environmental accolades, from its water-saving practices to its designation as the U.S. city with the cleanest air by the American Lung Association. Flagstaff is also the first International Dark Sky City, a recognition of its efforts to curb light pollution. The website also maintains a list of eco-friendly attractions, hotels and restaurants.
Discover the New, Preserve the Old
Gitlin said government involvement has led to some positive changes in northern Arizona. She cites the rearrangement of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon from a frustrating parking lot into its current configuration as one such success.
“Grand Canyon created a different system where they built a visitor center that was back off the rim,” Gitlin said. “People had to get out of their cars and walk through a plaza and walk by some beautiful monuments and landscape areas.”
This allowed the flow of tourists to be better directed, offsetting problems with overcrowding. It also had other benefits.
“I see people slowing down, taking their time, they’re in a better mood. They’re looking around, they’re enjoying themselves,” Gitlin said. “That is a really good success story. Because it’s an example of where, instead of trying to promote convenience and failing on it, they went a totally different route and promoted an experience.”
Businesses like those on Discover Flagstaff’s website also play an important role in educating visitors. Hotels touting their eco-friendly water practices remind customers to pay attention to their consumption habits, while outdoor companies teach consumers to be good stewards of the land, Gitlin said.
Improving Business, Personal Practices
Still, more could be done.
Gitlin wants to see bike companies teach trail etiquette, including staying on trails, to their customers. She also said companies could work sustainability into their business models.
“I would love to see someone start a business in Flagstaff, that rent out sleds, and you get a deposit back when you return it because we have a huge issue is broken plastic slides all over the forest,” Gitlin said.
Otherwise, Gitlin wants tourists to use the information available to protect the natural beauty that attracts them, especially if it means putting an end to her biggest pet-peeve.
“Throwing their orange peels down,” Gitlin said. “It drives me nuts.”
GRAND CANYON – Rep. Raúl Grijalva’s bill enacting a permanent ban on uranium mining drew praise this week from Havasupai leaders and criticism from the mining industry, as well as from a Republican member of Arizona’s congressional delegation.
“Havasupai means people of the blue green water, and we have been living here for over thousands of years,” Havasupai Tribal Council Member Claudius Putesoy said.
Hundreds of Havasupai live at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. They want to protect the future of their tribe and the sacred water.
Matthew Putesoy, the vice chairman of the Havasupai Tribe said native communities in northern Arizona have expressed their concerns for decades over uranium mining near their ancestral lands.
“We have a sacred duty to protect the land and the Grand Canyon from further desecration,” he said.
Grijalva, the Democratic chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act on Tuesday, the 100th anniversary of Grand Canyon National Park. The legislation would bar more than 1 million acres of land around the canyon from uranium mining.
The Arizona Mining Association was quick to condemn the bill, arguing that the call for a permanent ban is misleading and undermines the domestic supply of clean fuel sources.
“This is a disingenuous attack on the public’s desire for clean energy, a healthy economy without reliance on questionable imports of these critical materials, environmental stewardship and land use autonomy,” Steve Trussell, the association’s executive director, said in a statement sent to Cronkite News.
Uranium is one of 35 mineral commodities deemed critical to the security and economic prosperity of the United States, according to the Department of the Interior. Uranium is abundant in and around the canyon.
Currently, a moratorium set by the Obama administration in 2012 prohibits new mining claims in the area till 2032, but Grijalva said he wants to make that ban permanent.
“When you deal with this issue purely in academic terms and say, ‘Well, it’s just a little bit of mining, it’s just a little bit of uranium mining, what can that affect?’” Grijalva said. “Well, we have a litany , a history of that affect and it’s been negative”
The history of uranium mining in the area has left a mixed legacy. Multiple inactive mines line Grand Canyon National Park. The government has investigated high radiation levels and cleaned up contamination from the century-old Orphan Mine, which is near Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim.
The Canyon Mine, 6 miles south of the rim, which is still considered active, was exempt from the 2012 moratorium. The mine’s parent company, Energy Fuels, had to remove more than 1 million gallons of contaminated water from the mine site when it flooded in 2017.
The Grand Canyon Trust, a nonprofit environmental group, argues that tourism is more valuable to the local economy than mineral extraction.
“Uranium mining threatens these economic drivers while possessing little capacity to support the regional economy,” it said in a recent report.
“Facts are that the risks associated with uranium mining dramatically outweigh the benefits to this region or to this nation,” said Ethan Aumack, the trust’s executive director.
– Video by Lillian Donahue
The National Park Service reported that the more than 6 million visitors to the Grand Canyon National Park in 2017 supported 9,423 jobs and had a cumulative benefit of $938 million to the local economy.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., released a statement opposing the bill.
“Rep. Grijalva is pursuing his misguided quest to permanently lockup more than a million acres in Northern Arizona, harm education, kill jobs, infringe on private property rights and undermine American energy security,” Gosar said.
During his visit to the Grand Canyon on Saturday, Grijalva said he expects pushback on the initiative, but he has a message for his colleagues on Capitol Hill.
“To think of the Grand Canyon not in terms of a piece of federal land that they should open up as a commodity for drilling, for mining or for extraction,” Grijalva said. “They should think of it as a treasure that they need to comfort and take care of.”
GRAND CANYON VILLAGE – It’s a cold winter night along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and as she shuffles through the fresh snow, Abbie Smith can’t think of a better place to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
As midnight strikes, the Mesa resident is overjoyed to be staying in the park that has reached its centennial year.
She and her friend of six years, Anne Kenison of Gilbert, are just two of more than 6 million people from around the world who enjoy the canyon’s natural splendors each year.
Both of them recognize that while visiting Grand Canyon allows them a place to escape, all visitors share a responsibility to preserve the park, which faces challenges in how to manage all those people while protecting the park for future generations.
Smith and Kenison, who bonded over their love for national parks and Arizona, used the park’s 100th anniversary to launch a yearlong quest to try 100 new things at the park. So far, they’ve hiked into the canyon, eaten dinner at the Grand Canyon Lodge and braved the cold to take in the view at Yaki Point.
At each checkpoint, the women write the accomplishment on a whiteboard, snap a selfie and move on to the next adventure.
-Video by Gabrielle Olivera/Cronkite News
The Journey of a Lifetime
Smith’s love of national parks began at a young age.
“I grew up going to national parks as family vacations,” Smith said. “I have a love for natural places and national parks. I have a picture of me at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon when I was really little.”
But it wasn’t until Smith and Kenison went to hear photographer Pete McBride and writer Kevin Fedarko, who traveled more than 750 miles within the Grand Canyon to raise awareness about sustainability, speak at a National Geographic live event that they decided to get to know the canyon better.
“I know it’s four hours away, but it’s still my backyard,” Smith said.
The project is more than just checking off things to do, she said.
“It centers me,” Smith said. “It grounds me. It makes me reflect on my life. … I’m disconnected from things that don’t matter and connected to the things that do. It’s easy to just turn things off and just tune into other senses and the canyon itself. It is an amazing place. It’s unfathomable.”
The canyon’s popularity with visitors has led to an increase in traffic over the past few decades, she said, making the push for sustainable efforts at the park more urgent.
“I think protecting the resources at the park allows our future generations to also have spaces where they can disconnect from computers, from screens and the pressures of everyday life in a beautiful place that makes them feel grounded,” Smith said.
McBride, who is passionate about park preservation, hiked the entire length of the Grand Canyon in one year to raise awareness for the challenges facing this natural treasure, which President Theodore Roosevelt called “absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world.”
“It’s not a bucket-list item that we check off for luxury and convenience,” McBride said. “It’s a place that requires you to get away from your vehicle, embrace its silence, appreciate its night sky, be aware of its remarkable biodiversity, and not its geological history but also its archeological history.”
He said threats to the park include a proposal to build a tourist gondola across the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, ongoing uranium mining and a huge expansion of helicopter tourism at the park. There are nearly 120,000 commercial flights every year, according to 2016 data from the park.
“If it continues the way it is, we’re not going to leave the park the way it is,” McBride said. “It would set aside what has been called ‘America’s best idea’ to create these national parks and leave them for the next generation. It would be sad to change it in the name of making a profit for a small number of people.
Although Native American tribes who live in the canyon deserve economic opportunities, he said, they often do not profit from expansions at the Grand Canyon.
“People just assume it’s a protected landscape, and I believe it requires each generation to step up and voice how they feel about it,” McBride said.
100 Years of Exploration
Humans have lived in and around the Grand Canyon for thousands of years, but efforts to reserve it for the public are relatively recent.
“It was a national forest and then a national monument and then a national park in 1919,” said Paul Sutter, environmental history professor and the author of Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement, which tackles the dilemma of national parks protecting the landscape while accommodating increased tourism.
Once Americans embraced the automobile, he said, the National Park Service was able to attract large numbers of tourists.
“There was a shift in tourism from 1901 to years after World War I when a large number of automobiles started arriving, and it really changed the nature and patterns of visitation,” Sutter said. “The infrastructure of the automobile travel began to catch up around World War I.”
The National Park Service began a See America First campaign during World War I to entice people to drive out West, Sutter said.
“When most Americans thought about tourist travel, their first impulse was to go to Europe and go on a grand tour of all the famous sites,” Sutter said. “When that possibility got shut down around World War I, the See America First campaign was to increase tourism but also to create American identity through spectacular landmarks.”
-Video by Jonah Hrkal/Cronkite News
Places like the Grand Canyon are what make the U.S. stand out, he said.
“Europe may have these ancient ruins and all this history, but we have these monuments to nature, and that’s what made America a distinctive place.”
As a historian, Sutter knows every national park struggles to protect natural resources and manage visitation.
The Grand Canyon had nearly 38,000 visitors during its first year as a national park in 1919.
Today, the park welcomes more than 6 million annually.
“I personally wish we could figure out a way as a society that could better socialize the costs across the entirety of the population rather than raising the prices so much that you begin to put the experience out of reach for some people,” Sutter said. “I also know this is where they get their money and parks are in desperate need of money.
The Grand Canyon is the second most visited national park after Great Smoky Mountains National Park, according to the National Park Service, and it’s suffering from wear and tear. The park has a maintenance backlog of over $300 million.
Preserving the Park
Roosevelt declared the area a national monument in 1908, but several bills to have it declared a national park failed to pass Congress.
“In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world,” Roosevelt said. “I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”
Roosevelt, however, was out of office by the time Congress approved the Grand Canyon National Park Act. It was signed Feb. 26, 1919, by President Woodrow Wilson.
As the canyon celebrates its 100th anniversary, 2019 will be a year to honor the national park through a push for sustainability, according to centennial coordinator Vanessa Ceja.
“This is a place that’s going to stay here for thousands of years and we want it to stay for future generations,” Ceja said.
Over the next two years, the park will make the switch to zero landfill. Over the past five years, the National Park Service has put solar panels on staff housing and enforced single-stream recycling, Ceja said.
“We have one dumpster where all of our trash gets taken to so that’s increased the amount of recycling we’ve done in the park,” Ceja said. “By having less dumpsters, we’re reducing carbon emissions from trucks.”
Staff members will continue to encourage sustainable efforts, she said, but there are changes visitors can make to help preserve the canyon.
Visitors should take all their trash with them when they leave; leave all rocks and fossils; not vandalize the canyon; stay a safe distance from wildlife; and if you need to use the restroom in the inner canyon, dispose of your waste properly.
“Even though you are just a visitor, your actions here in the park have an impact,” Ceja said. “You don’t have to be a park staff to be a steward.”
Like any national park, anyone who visits has a responsibility to preserve the parks for generations to come.
“They are just places you really hope everyone can get to at one point,” Sutter said.
For Smith and Kenison, they know that a place so grand deserves multiple visits. They are continuing their quest to complete 100 adventures in and around Grand Canyon this year.
Smith and Kenison just completed over 80 tasks and their final, culminating experience will be rafting the Colorado River in June.
GRAND CANYON – Grand Canyon National Park’s safety, health and wellness manager caused a stir this week when he reported that three buckets of uranium ore stored in the park’s museum collections building had exposed visitors and staff to radiation for years.
Scientists, however, say unprocessed ore poses little danger unless exposed at very close range for long periods of time.
The buckets of uranium ore, along with samples of many other minerals found at the Grand Canyon, have been stored in the collections building, which visitors can tour by appointment, for two decades. Discovered last summer, the ore was removed from the building and dumped at “the site of its origin,” according to the safety manager’s report.
Uranium at the park was heavily mined during the Cold War. Grand Canyon’s former science director, Martha Hahn, said it’s everywhere. When she lived at the park, she had to move because inspectors found it in her house.
“To say that it was sitting out there and children and employees and everyone is in danger and nobody knew about it seems a little far-fetched to me because there were plenty of safety inspections done in the past,” Hahn said.
The park has spent millions of dollars cleaning up the Orphan Mine, which is 2 miles northwest of Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. The topsoil has been removed, and the milling site has been fenced off.
As for the buckets of ore, Grand Canyon senior advisor Jan Balsom said the park is coordinating an independent inspection with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Arizona Department of Health Services and other agencies.
“I don’t want to sound cavalier about it at all because we’re really concerned about risks of uranium in the environment and in our water supplies across the board, which is why we’re hoping for a permanent withdrawal from mining in the area,” Balsam said. “The couple buckets of samples of unprocessed rock aren’t the same sort of threat in my mind. They’re different. And we’re addressing it again. This’ll be the third or fourth team that’s come in in the last six months.”
One thing they plan to find out in the inspection is where the buckets of ore were dumped last summer. “Site of its origin” could mean the Orphan Mine, which opened in 1906.
FLAGSTAFF – The Grand Canyon, carved by water over millions of years, is a geologic wonder that has inspired poets to dream and scientists to ponder. Most of us are lucky to visit once or twice in a lifetime.
But for several Native American tribes, the Grand Canyon is their home.
“Most Americans think Native Americans are gone, but we’re still here,” said Carletta Tilousi, a Havasupai Tribal Council member who grew up in the Grand Canyon. “I’d like them to know that this was a home – is the home – of Native Americans, and our stories need to be told.”
In the late 1800s, the federal government sequestered the Havasupai to a side canyon until 1975, when they were given back some of their ancestral land.
“It’s been a really long, bitter relationship with the park,” Tilousi said. “The park forcefully removed my family, my great aunts and my great grandfather. And that really made me personally very angry as a child.”
Today, the National Park Service is required to consult with tribes when making changes that might have an impact on their land or their people.
Grand Canyon National Park celebrates its centennial next year. To mark the occasion, the National Park Service is working with 11 tribes traditionally associated with the canyon to tell their stories, converting the Desert View scenic overlook and watchtower from a traditional visitor-services area into an cultural heritage site.
“I think Havasupai, we’ve been ignored for a long time and not given the opportunity to voice our concerns on lands that were occupied by our family members,” Tilousi said.
Only in the past decade has Tilousi been willing to sit down with park staff members. In those meetings, tribal leaders have asked the park for an opportunity to tell their stories.
When the concessionaire Xanterra Travel Collection dropped Desert View Watchtower from its contract three years ago, former Grand Canyon Superintendent Dave Uberuaga invited tribal leaders to help park officials design a cultural heritage site there.
“What is really forward-thinking … about this project is the way that the relationship is changing,” said Jenn O’Neill, partnerships and planning coordinator for Grand Canyon National Park.
“Recent superintendents have used those other authorities available to them to change the conversation (with tribal leaders) to do more listening and less speaking, and to really build the trust. I mean, this whole project is propped up on trust that we will do what we say we will do.”
In addition to providing a venue to tell their own stories, the National Park Service also wanted to preserve existing cultural treasures, including Hopi artist Fred Kabotie’s murals inside the watchtower, which serves as the park’s eastern entrance. Architect Mary Colter modeled the steel and stone structure after towers erected by ancestral puebloan people of the Colorado Plateau. Built in 1932, it now is a National Historic Landmark.
“Every time I come in here, I see something new that I never saw before,” O’Neill said.
With the help of a grant, she said, the park hired conservators to clean the Kabotie artwork.
“They have spent the last three years cleaning with Q-tips and brushes every square inch of the murals,” she said.
Once the intertribal cultural heritage program is up and running, O’Neill hopes the rest of the park will follow suit.
“We don’t want to dispatch all things Native to the farthest corner of the park,” she said. “We want to create a program that works and is sustainable and then it will move into the larger park,” giving Native Americans a greater presence throughout.
Mable Franklin, who is Navajo, sees the heritage site at Desert View as a positive step.
“We actually are going to have a voice in the Grand Canyon again, and that’s one of the things I like about this heritage site,” Franklin said, although she’d like to see more.
Park officials only let Native artists sell their artwork under strict regulations. Artists are limited to selling only the crafts they’ve shown visitors how to create in cultural demonstrations.
“We would like to see our communities put their wares and generate revenue from that because in our community we have a lot of people that are vendors and that’s their way of life and that sustains them out here,” Franklin said.
For now, she hopes the 6 million annual visitors to Grand Canyon National Park will consider taking a side trip to Cameron Trading Post, about 30 miles east on the Navajo Nation, where artists earn a living selling their work.
GRAND CANYON – Arizona’s national parks are feeling their age and need a $531 million makeover on hundreds of roads and buildings that serve millions of annual visitors, park officials said. It’s a problem in national parks around the country, but financial rescue may be edging closer.
The Grand Canyon, Petrified National Forest and other recreation sites, such as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, are sagging under the weight of their popularity. As visitors increased 40 percent over six years at the Grand Canyon – 17 percent at all U.S. national parks – maintenance to parks and monuments has been delayed year after year.
Government officials call the multimillion-dollar backlog “deferred maintenance,” and the projects range from minor to major: fixing gutters, painting cabins, renovating water systems and repairing roads and trails.
Few claim the situation is dire, but advocates say the economic draw of tourism warrants timely renovations and repairs.
The backlog sweeps across the country, spurring concern in some quarters.
“It’s been a pure black eye for Congress,” said Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s lands-protection program.
Painting over a backlog
“Grand Canyon National Park has thousands of structures and hundreds of miles of roads, and it’s a lot to take care of,” said Chris Lehnertz, the park superintendent. The most pressing need is repairing the only water pipeline serving the South Rim, which is leaking, prompting water rationing.
Some volunteers said they are trying to make a dent in maintenance projects, one brush stroke at a time, and are spending weekends doing what they can.
One day in September, several volunteers and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke brushed reddish brown paint on the walls of six cabins built in the 1930s in Grand Canyon Village. The volunteers hailed from Coconino Community College in Flagstaff, which has a new class that requires students to volunteer at the park.
“It’s a great real-world experience,” college President Colleen Smith said. “Everybody works together and as a team, and that’s what it takes to get things done.”
But volunteers can accomplish just a sliver of what needs to be done. One estimate by the Arizona Trail Association is that one hour of volunteering is worth a little more than $24. In those few hours that September weekend, nine volunteers made a $1,111 dent in the multimillion dollar backlog, according to the National Park Service.
Zinke said Congress needs to work across the aisle to approve funding for national parks in the U.S., where the total backlog has reached $11.6 billion.
“Parks are not a Republican or Democrat issue,” said Zinke, who was appointed by President Donald Trump. “Parks are an American issue.”
A bipartisan bill, introduced by Arizona and Utah congressmen, called the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, last month passed the House Natural Resource Committee on a voice vote. It still has to make it through the full House and Senate.
A century of natural wonders
California, Virginia, New York and Wyoming have the highest backlog of maintenance bills, ahead of Arizona, but Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most popular parks in the country.
The park, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, is the second most visited national park, according to the park service. It carries the bulk of the state’s maintenance backlog at $330 million.
Smaller parks in Arizona have issues as well. Tonto National Monument needs $1 million in repairs and Petrified National Forest needs $44 million worth.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Tucson, who cosponsored the Restore Our Parks Act with Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, lists national parks and their maintenance as a priority of his legislative agenda, according to his website.
“I want to see leaking roofs repaired and crumbling roads rebuilt, but even more importantly, I want clean air to breathe and clean water that’s safe to drink,” Grijalva said in a news release.
The burden of popularity
More people have been visiting national parks in recent years, with 40 percent more visitors to the Grand Canyon in 2017 than 2012, according to the National Park Service.
And all the love is wearing parks down.
Brad Traver, superintendent of Petrified Forest National Park, said most buildings were erected in the 1930s or ’60s, when the number of visitors was a tiny fraction of what it is today.
Manuel, of the Sierra Club, said visitors notice that infrastructure is wearing out.
“When my kids were younger,” he said, “we went to national parks all the time… and you run into times when the bathrooms were broken, there weren’t enough parking spots.”
Manuel, who bikes in the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Maryland every weekend, said Congress for years has underfunded the NPS.
“These bills keep adding up and adding up, and Congress makes it worse by not appropriating the funds they need,” Manuel said.
He noticed some recent improvements at the park he frequents at Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Park, but said maintenance still lags, which affects domestic and international tourists alike.
Visitors bring in money, exacerbating the tension between welcoming them and shielding the park from their impact. According to the National Park Service, visitors spent more than $18 billion in U.S. parks and surrounding communities last year. Zinke said park visits last year contributed nearly $36 billion to the U.S. economy – more than three times the cost of repairing every national park, recreation area, memorial and highway overseen by the NPS.
Long road ahead
Road repairs account for half of all deferred maintenance at national parks, according to the NPS, and nearly every park is affected. That includes the George Washington Memorial Highway, a scenic drive in the Washington, D.C., area, which needs nearly $400 million in upgrades.
Traver, at Petrified Forest National Park, said road repairs are the top maintenance need. The main culprit here is the acidic soil, which eats away at the pavement, he said, adding that the park has a roads project next year that “will address $13 million of that deferred maintenance.”
At the Grand Canyon over the past year, a contractor has repaved cracked roads on the South Rim and sealed old pavement, the NPS said.
Buildings are a large part of the deferred maintenance backlog, but repairing them can be complicated if they are on the National Register of Historic Places, which is overseen by NPS.
“So those (buildings) become additional resources for us to protect,” Traver said. “You can’t just do whatever you want, you have to protect the character of the building as it was considered to be historic.”
The park’s Painted Desert Community Complex, designed by architects Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander in 1958, is a National Historic Landmark and has some foundation issues. The complex serves as the park’s visitor center and operational headquarters, and it houses most of the park’s concession operators, Traver said.
The complex also needs sprinklers in many of its buildings, as well as accessibility for people who are disabled.
Other structures at national parks serve utility purposes, such as Grand Canyon’s water system and Glen Canyon’s electrical generators and docks.
“A lot of these systems, for example, that generate electricity, they’re at or almost at the end of their intended lifespan,” said William Shott, superintendent of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Repairs to those systems are given high priority, he said, because they impact visitor safety.
But at the Grand Canyon, that argument has not provided the requisite funding for a pipeline that delivers all of the water used on the South Rim.
Lehnertz said the pipe, known as the Trans-Canyon Water Line, “is out of date and it’s failing. It’s over 50 years old.”
The pipe leaked as recently as this month prompting water restrictions, and park officials said they’re not sure where the leaks are at.
Matthew Nelson is executive director of the Arizona Trail Association, which maintains the Arizona National Scenic Trail that runs the length of the state. He says access to water basically means access to Grand Canyon National Park.
“People plan their trips day to day based on water sources,” Nelson said. “Without that facility functioning, that trail corridor is no longer safe. So projects like that are an absolute priority.”
The size of the parks and the distances involved to maintain the infrastructure compound the issue. Shott said park staff might have to drive for hours to work on a project.
“Today, we literally don’t have enough housing for employees to stay onsite to actually get that work done,” Shott said.
Still seeking funds
The backlog goes back decades, as Congress started underfunding the budgets for parks, Manuel said. It was nearly $11.5 billion in 2014, and hasn’t changed much since.
“As fast as we work to lower that maintenance backlog number, it rises just as fast,” Shott said.
Nelson said the best way to address the maintenance is “through volunteerism.”
An NPS official wrote in an email that volunteers spent more than 71,000 hours working on projects in the Grand Canyon, saving the park over $1.75 million.
More than 20 years ago, Congress passed a law meant to address the maintenance backlog. The 1997 legislation redirected royalties from private mineral mining off Alaska to the National Park Service and similar agencies.
Congress has since passed several similar bills, none of which chipped away at the backlog.
Still, Interior Secretary Zinke said he’s hopeful the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act – which would use royalties from energy production on public lands to fund maintenance projects – eventually will pass. The legislation has made it further in Congress than any other recent proposal to tackle deferred maintenance.
“If you’re going to create wealth and energy on public lands, then I think you also have an obligation to support, fund our public lands in perpetuity,” Zinke said.
Manuel, of the Sierra Club, said he is satisfied with the act because it caps the amount of money that could be raised each year by offshore drilling interests.
“We think this is a responsible approach to dealing with a serious problem Congress has let fester for far too long,” he said.
The Senate is considering an alternative bill that would use revenues from minerals taken from federal land to fund park repairs.