COVID-19 fears close Grand Canyon National Park after weeks of pressure

PHOENIX – The National Park Service abruptly closed Grand Canyon National Park on Wednesday, bowing to weeks of pressure after health officials expressed “extreme concern” about the potential for spread of COVID-19 in the park.

The park has been open with reduced services – and no entry fee – for two weeks as the number of coronavirus cases have spiked in the state and the nation and as public health officials have enacted increasingly strict limits on gatherings and public activities.

Those increases were cited Wednesday by Coconino County Chief Health Officer Thomas Pristow, who said the county has recorded 82 COVID-19 cases and four deaths from the disease. Projections of the disease’s growth over the next month are “staggering,” he said in a letter to park officials.

“The decision to allow the park to remain open puts park employees, area residents and tourists at risk,” Pristow’s letter said.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the decision to close the park came “as soon as we received the letter.” The park was closed immediately and will remain closed indefinitely, he said in a press release.

“The Department of the Interior and the National Park Service will continue to follow the guidance of state and local health officials in making determinations about our operations,” Bernhardt’s statement said.

But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, who had joined others urging the park’s closure, called Bernhardt’s explanation “absurd on its face,” noting that Pristow sent a similarly urgent letter Friday. He said “any competent authority would take notice and act immediately.”

“Instead, the Interior Department delayed for nearly a week while the governor remained silent,” Grijalva said in a statement Tuesday. “Secretary Bernhardt can’t blame anyone else for his inability to make the obvious and necessary decision.”

The Grand Canyon drew 6.3 million visitors who spent $947 million in the region in 2018, according to a National Park Service report last year. It said tourism to the park generated $1.2 billion in total economic activity and supported more than 12,000 jobs in the region.

Despite the potential economic hit, an official with the Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce and Visitors welcomed the closure.

“I know for the safety of the residents, we’re happy that we’ve gotten to this point,” said Laura Chastain, the visitors bureau spokesperson. “Just wish it would have happened sooner.”

Tusayan Vice Mayor Brady Harris said he respects the “difficult decision” to temporarily close the park, “given the rapid spread of COVID-19.”

“It was made with the best interest of our residents in the surrounding community, by closing the Grand Canyon National Park,” Harris said. “I hope that the spread of this virus will be curved, allowing us to return back to normal as quickly and safely as possible.”

Calls for the park’s closure had been made by Coconino County officials and the Navajo Nation, among others. They were joined Tuesday by 10 members of Congress, including three from Arizona, who urged Bernhardt to close the park, citing public health and safety concerns. The lawmakers’s letter said that in one day on a popular Grand Canyon trail, a park ranger “had 600 contacts with visitors.”

Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, who signed the letter, said Wednesday he was glad to see Park Service leadership listened to concerns from members of Congress and others.

“While I am committed to protecting our public lands and ensuring that they are accessible to all Americans, the health and safety of my constituents is my top priority,” O’Halleran said in a press release following the closure announcement. “I believe that this is the correct course of action.”

While the park itself is closed, Chastain said she hopes people take advantage of digital park viewing tools during this time to “virtually” visit.

“We still have different videos we’ve created over the years that will allow people to still see a national treasure, even if we are closed for the safety of everyone,” she said.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Grand Canyon lodging, food services shuttered in face of coronavirus

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.”

Man vs. mussel: Buckeye mayor testifies on threat from invasive species

WASHINGTON – Buckeye Mayor Jackie A. Meck said drinking water is scarce enough for cities in the West – they don’t need to be competing with invasive species for it, too.

Meck was one of several witnesses Wednesday at a Senate hearing on the impact of nonnative species – mostly quagga and zebra mussels that clog water intake pipes and force out native species, but also salt cedar that line the region’s riverbanks.

The mussels, native to Europe, were discovered in the Great Lakes in the 1980s and had spread to Lake Mead, Lake Mojave and Lake Havasu by 2007. The fast-breeding freshwater mussels can quickly take over boat hulls, intake pipes, hydroelectric dams – anything under water, as evidenced by the mussel-encrusted shoe displayed on the desk at the hearing.

“It’s been a problem since 2007 and it hasn’t gotten any better,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., during the hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee. “We need to make this a priority.”

Scott Cameron, principal deputy assistant Interior secretary for policy management and budget, testified that the Bureau of Reclamation’s fiscal 2021 budget request includes $5.6 million to deal with finding and controlling mussels on its facilities.

“The last thing Nevada or Arizona needs are more endangered species because these things are smothering them, or sucking up their food or otherwise occupying their habitat,” Cameron said.

Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., said these invaders can be “devastating” to U.S. waters and that they are “a huge and growing problem in the Southwest.”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., left, and Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., at a hearing on invasive species, where a shoe that has been covered by nonnative quagga mussels is displayed on the table in front of them. (Photo by Jessica Myers/Cronkite News)

But while others were focused on mussels, Meck said the problem for his city are the thirsty salt cedar trees that line the Gila River, sucking up 200-300 gallons of water per day.

Salt cedar trees were first planted in the state in the late 1800s to control erosion and have since spread to 15,000 acres along the Gila River in Buckeye, Goodyear and Avondale. Besides being thirsty, the trees deposit salt around their bases and are highly flammable, which can pose a wildfire threat.

“In Arizona, our desert rivers like the Verde, Salt and Gila have been hit particularly hard,” McSally said in her opening statement. “Right now these riverbeds are choked with up to 4,000 salt cedars per acre.”

The trees are also hard to kill. They quickly grow back from stumps when they are cut down, unless the stumps are treated with chemicals. Federal officials thought they had an answer with a nonnative beetle that can defoliate the trees, but stopped that experiment in 2010 after it became clear that getting rid of the trees would remove nesting areas for the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher.

Buckeye Mayor Jackie A. Meck greets Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., after a Senate subcommittee hearing on invasive species. Meck and McSally both expressed concern about the spread of invasive salt cedars along the Gila River. (Photo by Jessica Myers/Cronkite News)

“The only solution to this problem is to remove the salt cedar,” Meck told the subcommittee, expressing frustration at the bureaucratic red tape that he said is slowing efforts to remove the trees.

George Diaz, the government relations manager for Buckeye, said after the hearing that salt cedars have been removed from 60 acres in the city, which is working to restore native vegetation, like cottonwood and willow trees. But there are challenges, he said.

“Because the area that we’re concerned with lies within a waterway, we have to get specific 404 permits and other kinds of permits,” under the federal Clean Water Act, Diaz said.

The Gila River Restoration Project – a collaboration between Maricopa County, the cities of Buckeye, Avondale and Goodyear and the Maricopa Flood Control District – estimates that removing salt cedars would provide water for 200,000 households, or 600,000 people.

But Robin Silver, a co-founder and board member of the Center for Biological Diversity, said the “holy war against salt cedar” is misguided. He said there is no evidence that removing salt cedars will result in more water for nearby cities.

Buckeye Mayor Jackie A. Meck greets Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., after a Senat subcommittee hearing in invasive species. Meck and McSally both expressed concern about the spread of invasive salt cedars along the Gila River. (Photo by Jessica Myers/Cronkite News)

“It’s not going to give his community any more water – that’s nonsense,” Silver said.

He said that part of the problem is that watersheds in the West have been so changed by human interference that the salt cedar is the only vegetation left in some areas. Silver also challenged the claim that one tree can soak up hundreds of gallons a day, calling that an insignificant amount in the larger picture.

“Even if it were true, you think 300 gallons is going to last very long in Buckeye or Avondale?” he said. “It’s like, that’s probably a shower for the mayor.”

But Meck, who is planning to step down as mayor soon, is not deterred.

The Gila River Restoration Project is working to eradicate salt cedars and restore an 18-mile stretch of the Gila river, the latest in what he called a 25-year effort of “trying to get something done.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Blasting sacred sites for border wall ‘forever damaged’ tribes

WASHINGTON – An emotional Tohono O’odham Nation chairman told lawmakers Wednesday that blasting on sacred sites in national monuments to build a border wall near his reservation has “forever damaged our people.”

“I know in my heart and what our elders have told us and what we have learned that that area is home to our ancestors,” said Chairman Ned Norris Jr., pausing to compose himself as he tried to hold back tears. “And by blasting, and doing what we saw today, has totally disturbed, totally forever damaged our people.”

Norris was one of six witnesses testifying at a House Natural Resources subcommittee looking into damage caused by contractors as they build a stretch of border wall through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which stretches along the border and abuts the Tohono O’odham Nation.

Recent controlled blasting has included Monument Hill, which officials say is the final resting place of Apache warriors defeated by the Tohono O’odham, and which environmentalists say is home to two endangered species.

Democrats made their opinion clear with the title of the hearing, to investigate “destroying sacred sites and erasing tribal culture” to build the wall.

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Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, called the government’s actions “reckless” and “harmful,” and said the demolition has been done “without any kind of meaningful tribal consultation … without advanced notice.”

“This administration apparently has no shame for the damages it has caused to tribal burial grounds,” Gallego said at the hearing. “This is the Tohono O’odham Nation equivalent to bulldozing through parts of Arlington National Cemetery.”

But Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, said that a wall would stop illegal border crossings that he said pose an “overwhelming destructive activity” to areas around the border.

“Trash, feces, water pollution … illegal vehicle transit,” Gosar said. “All this damage, all this destruction as a result of illegal trafficking has left deep scars” on the environment.

“I get it, you don’t want the wall. You don’t want to work with the Trump administration,” he said. “But you offer no alternatives.”

That theme was echoed by Scott Cameron, principal deputy assistant Interior secretary for policy, management and budget, who testified that the situation at the border “threatens core national security interests and constitutes a national emergency.”

“Along this border, cultural resources, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, plants and animals are adversely impacted by land degradation and destruction from trails, trash, fires and other activities related to unlawful border crossings,” he said in his prepared testimony.

Cameron said that in the last three years at Organ Pipe alone, National Park Service rangers have arrested 71 people, stopped 1,231 border crossers and found 7,563 pounds of marijuana. Since 2010, he said, Park Service staff have found the remains of 184 people.

Scott Cameron of the Interior Department said a border wall could protect sensitive sites by cutting down on illegal traffic. Also testifying is the Government Accountability Office’s Anna Maria Ortiz .(Photo by Jessica Myers/Cronkite News)

“Construction of border barriers will reduce or eliminate impacts from illegal entry and will help us maintain the character of these lands and resources under the department’s management that may otherwise be lost,” Cameron said.

He said that if there aren’t “illegal vehicles driving willy-nilly over an area,” they won’t be disturbing protected sites or “running over endangered desert tortoises.”

But critics said that comes at a cost of disruption of sacred burial and ceremonial sites. And that destruction often comes “without any consultation, without any respect and without following the constitutional mandate that you need to talk nation to nation” to affected tribes, said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson.

His district includes much of the southern border as well as the Tohono O’odham Nation. which is in Mexico and the U.S., divided by 62 miles of border.

Tribe members “share the same language, culture, religion and history,” Norris said, often crossing the border for religious and cultural ceremonies, as well as regular visits.

Norris said his tribe is sensitive to border issues, having spent “an annual average of $3 million of our own tribal funds on border security and enforcement to help meet the United States’ border security responsibilities. The Nation’s police force typically spends more than a third of its time on border issues.”

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, right, and Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, at a House hearing where Gallego said border wall construction is “reckless” and harming national monuments and sacred sites. (Photo by Jessica Myers/Cronkite News)

But the nation strongly opposes border wall construction, he said, not only because it’s costly, but also because it is “highly destructive to the religious, cultural and environmental resources on which our members rely and which make our ancestral lands sacred to our people.”

Norris said the tribe is rarely given advance notice of work on potentially sensitive sites, citing one time when he was notified by email the same day that blasting was set to occur on land that is the final resting place for many of his tribe’s ancestors.

“We have an obligation, we have a responsibility, we have a vested interest in protecting and securing the safety of our ancestors, and the remains of our ancestors and protecting these sacred sites regardless of whether or not they are on our current ancestral lands,” Norris said.˜

Last year, archaeologists found bone fragments during an archaeological survey near Quitobaquito Springs, two of which were later determined to be human. Cameron said the Park Service is working to “repatriate the bone fragments to the Tohono O’odham Nation.”

Those answers, and the insistence by Gosar and Cameron that a wall would help protect sites in the area, did little to placate Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M. As one of two Native American women in Congress, she said it is her duty to stand up against “shameful” and “immoral” actions against indigenous people.

Trash can be cleaned up, Haaland said, but “a sacred site that’s been blasted cannot be whole again.”

“I don’t know how any of you sleep at night,” she said.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.