The Grand Canyon wants to change the way backcountry areas are managed as more outdoor enthusiasts take to the park's open spaces, with proposals that would require hikers using the most popular inner-canyon trails to spend a few dollars on a permit.
Millions of people visit the Grand Canyon each year, taking in the sweeping views from developed areas where they can stroll along the rim, grab a bite to eat and hop on a shuttle bus to other outlooks. Far fewer people venture into the 1.1 million acres that make up the backcountry, including trails below the canyon rim.
Park officials are trying to get a better handle on how many people are walking down trails such as Bright Angel and South Kaibab from the South Rim, and North Kaibab from the North Rim.
Three options for revising a 1988 backcountry management plan include a day-use permit for hiking more than 5 miles below the rim and paying a minimum $5 fee.
Park superintendent Dave Uberuaga said the system would allow hikers to read up on the weather, physical demands of hiking and traffic on the trail to improve their experience.
"Our intent is not to prevent them from doing it, and we're not talking about limits," he said Monday. "We're talking about educating them so they know what they're getting into."
The proposals for backcountry management also address more remote areas of the park and relatively new recreation activities such as canyoneering, climbing, rim-to-rim excursions and backpacking trips that require short travel on the Colorado River.
The proposals aim to reduce conflicts among outdoor groups seeking the solitude of the backcountry and to ensure the park's resources are protected. Between 30,000 and 35,000 people a year travel to areas that can take days or weeks to access.
Backcountry permits now don't identify when someone plans to go climbing or canyoneering, and the park has no policy on anchors placed into rocks or other gear.
Uberuaga said the park wants to monitor the use and be upfront with people on how those activities can be managed.
Last year, the Grand Canyon started requiring permits and a fee for groups of hikers and runners who publicly advertised a rim-to-rim trip to cut back on overcrowding on the trails, litter and safety issues.
The park's preferred option for the backcountry management plan includes reducing group sizes for overnight backpacking, developing more campsites and limiting commercially guided services.
Chris Forsyth, president of the Grand Canyon Hikers and Backpackers Association, said the group is still reviewing the proposals. But he said he's interested in knowing how backcountry permits might be divided between commercial guides and private backpackers, which could lead to the same kind of controversy seen with river trips. All applications are treated the same now.
"It seems that they're proposing to set aside more nights for guided hikes, and that seems an unnecessary distortion," he said.
A proposed pilot program also would allow seasonal access to a limited number of backpackers to a coveted area of canyons, buttes and a natural bridge beyond a formation known as the Great Thumb. Access has been limited by a nearby tribe.
Another option for the backcountry management plan is to leave things as is. The public has 90 days to comment on the proposals. Public meetings are planned Wednesday at the Grand Canyon and next Monday in Flagstaff.