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Coconino Voices: Is 'wilderness' necessary inside Grand Canyon?

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Imagine biking along the road from the iconic Desert View Watchtower to Cape Solitude, stopping periodically to soak up the vast panorama of the Grand Canyon from atop the Palisades of the Desert.

Imagine driving along the Boundary Road, west of the Grand Canyon Village, in order to hike out to Mescalero Point or Piute Point or to the natural arch at Jicarilla Point.

Imagine driving out to Francois Matthes Point in order to camp overnight on the North Rim overlooking Cheyava Falls, the highest waterfall in Grand Canyon.

Imagine all you want, but none of these activities is permitted at Grand Canyon National Park. That's because park officials want some 94 percent of the canyon's 1.2 million acres to be considered as "wilderness" and managed according to the requirements set out in the 1964 Wilderness Act.

That probably sounds pretty benign. After all, who could be against wilderness? Well, I am. Such a designation requires an act of Congress. It mandates virtually no human presence, and certainly nothing permanent. It prohibits any kind of mechanical conveyance, including bicycles. And, any changes would require another act of Congress.

Congress has not voted to make any of Grand Canyon "wilderness." No president, since Nixon, has forwarded a recommendation to Congress asking for Grand Canyon lands to become wilderness, nor has any Interior Secretary make such a recommendation to the president since 1971. Both of these steps are part of the protocol established by the Wilderness Act.

Yet, the Park Service has determined, as part of its own internal policy, that "proposed wilderness ... will be managed to preserve their wilderness character and values undiminished until Congress acts on the recommendations." The fact that Congress has not acted on these proposals for nearly 40 years has become irrelevant to this management decision.

But, that means the Park Service can really operate beyond the law and treat lands as wilderness just because they want to. Even if Congress rejected such a proposal, I suspect a new proposal would be made and they'd continue with business as usual.

Applying wilderness designation to national park land is excessive. These lands are already well-protected. While the Wilderness Act includes national parks, it seems more focused on other lands. Indeed, there are numerous wilderness areas astride the Grand Canyon, including Kanab Creek, Saddle Mountain and Paria Canyon. Near to Flagstaff there are the wilderness areas of Kendrick Mountain, Kachina Peaks, Munds Mountain and Sycamore Canyon. Altogether, nearly 5 percent of the United States is in wilderness areas. Arizona has some 90 such wilderness areas. The Grand Canyon does not need to have a "wilderness" designation in order to meet its mandate to preserve its character for future generations.

In July, the Grand Canyon is getting a new duperintendent, Dave Uberuaga. It appears that he may be at the canyon for many years to come. He also appears to be receptive to the idea that we don't need to close up the Canyon to preserve it. I would encourage Superintendent Uberuaga to consider having the park withdraw its recommendation for wilderness designation and return us to an era of responsible management where we can accommodate the visitor experience without loss of the park's values.

Perhaps then we can do more than imagine camping overnight on an isolated North Rim viewpoint, or access remote parts of the canyon without having to hike across miles and miles of forests, or riding a bicycle out to Cape Solitude. Perhaps we may even come to do more than imagine a re-established Hermit Camp, catering to hikers as it did a century ago.

Dennis Foster has a Ph.D. in economics and has hiked thousands of miles in the wilderness areas of Grand Canyon since 1977.


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