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Grand Canyon Congestion won't be relieved soon!!

A newspaper article from April 13, 2001



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by Judith Graham  Chicago Tribune

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - A year ago, officials at Grand Canyon National Park were putting final touches on an ambitious plan to build a light-rail system and limit car traffic at the park's popular South Rim.

Outside the south entrance, developers were close to completing a proposal for a huge environmentally state-of-the-art $330 million hotel, retail and education complex. Experts predicted that it would become a model for similar developments at gateways to national parks in the 21st century.

Now, because of a series of setbacks, plans for both projects are up in the air. And as the peak tourist season for the Grand Canyon approaches, there is every indication that it will be one of the most crowded, chaotic and hassle-ridden seasons ever, park officials say.

If ever there were a symbol of how ambivalent Americans are about national parks and conflicted about how they should be managed, the Grand Canyon is it.

`Critical fork in the road'

Many people want to protect its natural grandeur and majesty from encroachments of civilization. But every effort to impose controls brings charges that the government is trying to restrict access to a resource that belongs to the people and that should be open to all.

"We're at a critical fork in the road on some very important decisions that will shape the Grand Canyon's future," said Dave Simon, southwest regional director for National Park Conservation Association, an independent citizens group. Yet, by all accounts, agreement on what to do is lacking.

Nowhere is the need to manage growing crowds of visitors at national parks more urgent than at the West's most visited park. The number of Grand Canyon tourists has doubled since the mid-1980s to almost 5 million a year.

Crowding at the south entrance is so intense in the summer that drivers circle parking spaces as they would at a busy mall. In peak season, helicopters and airplanes buzz overhead every few minutes. Motorized rafts roar down the Colorado River, some carrying generators for campsites on beaches.

The onslaught represents what Geoff Barnard, president of the Grand Canyon Trust, refers to as "death by a thousand cuts," the gradual erosion of the canyon's inspiring solitude and wildness. A proposal that would formally designate wilderness areas within the park has sat at the Interior Department for two decades because it is deemed too controversial to be presented to Congress.

No one seems able to answer the question: Where does it stop?

Should cell-phone towers be built nearby, so people can use phones in the park, as some have proposed? Should a scenic, two-lane highway from Flagstaff be expanded to four lanes?

Should cars be restricted in the park to ease traffic congestion, a plan favored by the National Park Service? Would tourist and retail development near the south entrance better serve the crush of visitors or further commercialize the experience of the Grand Canyon and draw even larger crowds?

President Bush acknowledges that there are problems at America's 384 national parks. In his first major speech to Congress, he proposed spending nearly $5 billion on improvements over the next 10 years. In his budget released Monday, Bush made it clear the bulk of resources - about $2.2 billion out of a total $2.5 billion - would be devoted to parks' maintenance backlog in fiscal 2002.

Plenty of opportunities to use the money at the Grand Canyon exist. The park's staff lives in decrepit trailers and deteriorating dormitories. An old pipeline that supplies water breaks down every few months; a waste-water plant needs fixing.

But many suspect that infrastructure improvements aren't really what President Theodore Roosevelt had in mind when he enjoined the nation to keep the Grand Canyon "for your children, your children's children and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see."

"The real issue is that the Grand Canyon is gradually being turned into a venue for entertainment - `Come see this natural marvel!' - instead of being protected as one of the last great wild places," said Rob Smith, southwest representative for the Sierra Club.

Of all decisions about the park, what to do about cars may be the most important.

Clinton's answer: trains

The Clinton administration thought it had an answer. After extensive planning, the National Park Service decided to bring mass transit to the Grand Canyon to relieve traffic congestion at the South Rim, the destination for 90 percent of the park's tourists. With only 2,400 parking spaces and several thousand visitors an hour during peak summer months, bottlenecks in the area have become legendary.

Officials proposed a light-rail system a few years ago, the first suggested for a national park. The $175 million to $200 million light-rail system would pick up tourists at a new, 2,800-space lot outside the south entrance and shuttle them to a new visitors' center. Only tourists staying overnight in the park, an estimated 20 percent, could drive in.

Park planner Brad Traver said the goal was to reduce the number of vehicles and provide "a quieter, more natural" experience.

But as bids were to go out in November, two members of Arizona's congressional delegation effectively halted the light-rail plans and asked officials for alternatives.

The legislators said the park may have overestimated the number of tourists expected over the next decade and noted that light rail might be too expensive.

The park service's report on options is due out in June. Buses appear to be the leading alternative and could be running as early as 2003, if Congress steps in to help provide funding, Traver said. If not, it's not clear where the money will be found.

Meanwhile, the new Canyon View visitors' center inside the park opened in October without any new parking spaces. "This is designed for transit, and we don't have transit yet," Traver said, looking out over an empty lot that someday might be a train terminal.

Light rail was meant to be the backbone for $350 million in improvements planned for the park, the largest spending burst in 40 years. Officials also hope to construct a large education center, tear down two hotels on the South Rim, rebuild some employee housing and create trails.

If cars are the key issue inside the park, outside the biggest concern is what kind of tourist-related development should occur.

That seemed settled until November, when citizens denied zoning for Canyon Forest Village, a $330 million project a few miles outside the south entrance.

The complex, billed as a well-planned, upscale alternative to helter-skelter development in the nearby town of Tusayan, would have included 1,220 hotel rooms, 270,000 square feet of retail space, an American Indian market and an education center to be run by the Museum of Northern Arizona.

Virtually every major group interested in the Grand Canyon supported the environmentally sensitive project, with the exception of the Sierra Club.

Developer won't go away

"None of the reasons why our plan makes sense have gone away," said Thomas De Paolo, the politically connected lead developer, who has vowed to revive plans for the complex after lawsuits brought against it are resolved.

Meanwhile, an issue that has hung over the Grand Canyon for years - controlling noise from helicopters and sightseeing planes - is unresolved. Commercial aviation operators sued federal officials last year over rules that would cap the number of flights, arguing that they had solved the noise problem. Park officials disagree.

The Grand Canyon is the only national park directed by Congress to restore natural quiet to its vast empty reaches, under a 1987 law championed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Restricting flights over the canyon makes sense to Sue Page of Houston, who recently emerged from a helicopter ride with a smile. She typifies the ambivalence people feel about keeping things accessible but under control.

"You just can't understand the feeling unless you see it for yourself. I think it should be limited, as long as we can go up there."

Copyright 2001 The Seattle Times Company

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