Site Restoration and Revegetation


   As the popularity of the Colorado River grew in the sixties and seventies, an abundance of “impromptu” trails developed as river runners frequented previously unvisited sites. More often than not, the trails selected consisted of the most obvious routes but not necessarily the best locations. As a result, many of these trails experienced significant erosion, and often extensive multiple trailing developed. Beginning in 1978, the Park Service initiated a restoration program aimed at relocating some of the most troublesome trail sections and eliminating multiple trailing. That program, with the help of the Grand Canyon River Guides and Grand Canyon outfitters, continues today.

   The 1989 Colorado River Management Plan presents guidelines concerning multiple trailing and campsite impacts. It emphasizes the need to establish single trails to attraction sites, and localize the impacts of social trailing, particularly within the old high water and desert vegetation zones. Camping activities should be confined to the more resilient, resistant sand beaches. The Plan also establishes a tiered approach to impact resolution, beginning with minimal efforts consisting of simply blocking off multiple trails with deadfall, to actual trail relocation or emplacement of waterbars, or, if all else fails, closure of the site.

   Guidelines for revegetation, campsite stabilization, and trail maintenance standards should conform with Park Service policies regarding proposed wilderness.1  Such areas should be “protected and managed so as to preserve its natural condition… with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”2   Not only should the impacts of recreational activities be “substantially unnoticeable”, but so should the restoration efforts that mitigate such impacts. Park managers are required to utilize the “minimum tool”, minimum level regulation, and minimum level of manipulation to manage the area in a natural condition. It should be emphasized that this minimum effort must be sufficient to actually work.

   Ideally, any restoration work should result in immediate improvement by eliminating visual and resource impacts with no evident signs of manipulation. Rehabilitation of multiple trailing through careful restoration techniques including the breaking up of compacted soil, careful placement of brush, and liberal application of leaf and other organic mulch can often accomplish this goal. Larger areas, such as the hiker’s camp at Tanner or the river camp at Lava-Chuar, require the short-term visual impacts of techniques involving commercially available jute mat. If the revegetation attempt is successful, and in a desert environment this may require several years minimum, the visual intrusion will be short-term and the restoration permanent.

   Trail work presents additional challenges. Most of the backcountry trails were constructed fifty to one hundred years ago to accommodate mining and tourism. As a result, routes were generally selected to minimize the grade and subsequent maintenance problems. Often, rock retaining walls, waterbars, and other erosion control features were installed to maintain the trail. The unintentional result of constructed and maintained trails was the reduction of additional impacts on surrounding vegetation, archaeological sites, and other resources.

   Many of the trails developed along the river to attraction sites were not as well planned. These problem sections are the focus of the current restoration program. A number of deteriorating trails were only recently relocated to reduce grade and erosion problems. These areas include Nankoweap, Saddle Canyon, Deer Creek, Stone Creek, Royal Arch, the Beamer Trail, and the Lava-Carbon Creek trail. Sometimes the original trail was retained, with the problem sections stabilized as described above. Sometimes the level of resource damage, particularly to archaeological features, was considered excessive and the site was closed. Examples of closure include the “Anasazi Bridge” and Furnace Flats archaeological complex.

   At any rate, the involvement of Grand Canyon River Guides presents a great opportunity for the folks who run the river to become involved with not only the actual restoration work, but with the evaluation and planning process. Finding the best solution is often challenging, sometimes frustrating, but it’s better than working for a living.

Kim Crumbo

   1  The 1980 Wilderness Recommendation excludes the North and South Rim developed areas, Tuweep, the lake below Separation, and Cross Canyon Corridor (Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails) from Wilderness consideration.

   2   Wilderness Act. 1964. Public Law 88-577. 78 Stat. 890. Section 2(c)