recall a cartoon once seen in The New Yorker wherein a just-married
couple emerges, in their wooden boat, from the Tunnel Of Love, straight
into the deadliest of flat white foam keeper holes. Funny HA-HA!
And big trouble, too. The message, of course, being that the boat
ride was fun while it lasted. And now it’s just about over. You
know the rest.
The idea I want to impart here is that the end
of the trail along love’s lost highway seems remarkably like what
I call the situation in Grand Canyon today. This is not to say something
is amiss with the way NPS does its job, for that isn’t the case.
Nor that there is anything wrong with the way anybody else corresponds
with Grand Canyon issues. My comment is that the mindset guiding
the entire protect Grand Canyon process is all wrong. It doesn’t
do any good to change your life jacket when you need a new boat.
Management is one thing, legalities another,
consensus the ultimate authority here. By this I mean that while
the National Park Service is the ultimate legal authority in Grand
Canyon, that it isn’t necessarily the number one decision-making
entity there. Not in 1995. More and more, NPS takes its cues from
the public. And today there are so many advocacy groups, constituencies,
satellite governmental bureaus, private interest coalitions, lobbyists,
and others in play, that any decision-making rises from considerations
between groups displaying sometimes vastly different priorities.
It’s my overwhelming feeling that a doctor should
be bedside when ministering his patient. It is interesting that
so many meetings dealing with Grand Canyon’s future do not take
place at Grand Canyon. Many times these gatherings are in Denver,
Salt Lake City, Phoenix or elsewhere, in comfortable conference
rooms in proper hotels. In these places the people so gathered discuss
such things as visitor experience, wilderness values, the operation
of Glen Canyon Dam. When talking about people, the discussion oft-times
centers on congestion at the rim or on the river, noise in the air,
people down the trail, or garbage at campsites, this couched in
terms of contacts, visitor days and LACs—Limits of Acceptable Change.
When talking about the dam, people refer to acre-foot allocations,
electrical demands and operating criteria while flying the flags
of beach erosion and chubs.
Underscoring this discussion is the idea that
impacts will be mitigated. This comes with the mostly unspoken codicil
that Grand Canyon is something our grand children must be privileged
to experience. The bottom line is We will save it for them. It is
said those who come after us have the right to learn from and appreciate
the natural world for what it is, a place of primal might and majesty
and that Grand Canyon is, perhaps, the best example found anywhere
I will not argue that. No doubt Grand Canyon,
learned through any close-and-personal manner, offers up a full
plate of spectral majesty, bold etches of wilderness, all manner
of wondrous, and sometimes rude, personal enlightenments. But, however
beautifully mindboggling to the recipient Grand Canyon’s allure
may be, my thesis here is what the visitor experiences in Grand
Canyon is not what he is due.
By example I remind you the Colorado in Grand
Canyon is not simply a river moving downhill in tune with the seasons.
Yes, it’s water, but that’s as good as it gets. At this point the
Colorado is not a river. Not even close. It is an above ground pipeline,
approximately 255 miles in length, connecting two massive reservoirs,
Powell and Mead. Its every move is ordained, orchestrated and accomplished
by computers after receiving input from humans. In 1995, technology
so repudiates nature that the “river’s” “flows” are purely, and
only, the result of political, economic and agrarian needs. It just
looks and feels like a river when you’re out there rafting, or fishing.
There is nothing natural about any of it. For further effect I say
the reason there is any “river” anyplace in Grand Canyon is that,
historically, other people have needed the water more than rafters.
Don’t get me wrong. How to operate the dam to
best serve Grand Canyon’s riparian needs is a broadly joined environmental
movement with a certain amount of credibility. But don’t let that
fool you, either. I point to the fact these matters are under consideration
at all. Everybody is trying to be a Good Steward, which is commendable,
while protecting their economic, emotional or other interests, which
I want to rationalize as status quo. But at the same moment every
interest is at issue, all concerns are measured, and nothing is
not unimportant. If you have something to say, it’s time to step
to the microphone. We’ve got to account for every drop of blood.
The big question always close to the glass is
how do we squeeze out of the Colorado “river” everything we need?
This includes but is certainly not limited to electrical power generation
in the amounts needed to service vast populations in the Southwestern
USA; the provision of sufficient revenues for those with their hand
on the floodgates; the irrigation demands of 7 western states, with
a certain acre-foot allotment to Mexico; dependable flows for rafting
with all kinds of boats; fish—I mean a lot of fish, both native
and introduced species, with completely divergent lifestyles, habitats,
water temperature sensitivities, relative positions on the food
chain, etc, etc, etc; an amazing amount of post-dam flora and fauna
springing-up on ever diminishing beaches now accommodating more
and more happy campers purportedly enjoying some kind of meaningful
personal experience in a natural setting...
...and I’m really serious about this and I don’t
have a better way put it. But don’t you think Grand Canyon is getting
a little like, well, Disneyland?
Originally, Disney catered a different clientele
and presented a different experience through a far different medium
of entertainment. The physical plant was, and is, a completely manufactured
environment designed to meet the needs of its developers. And forty
years later Disneyland functions so well because of miles of underground
tunnels, service areas, cafeterias, gymnasiums and the like. Most
of the personnel, nearly all logistics, and anything else you can
think of, are hidden under your feet. There are far more train tracks
below ground than you ever see above ground.
Disneyland opened in 1955, a year further incised
by Litton’s first dory, Georgie’s big rig, Beer and Daggett’s swim,
a time when, in terms of a vague but important milepost, Grand Canyon
boating seeped into the nation’s consciousness. That was before
Glen Canyon Dam, when soft adventure was born, about the same year
the first televisions had three channels and Milton Berle was the
man to reckon with. That was before Elvis, The Beatles, Silent Spring,
Dylan, hippies, and Hendrix, who is now 25 years dead. But it wasn’t
before a lot of people you see around here can remember. And do
you know what they think? They think that however primitive 1955
may have been by today’s standards, that Grand Canyon was then a
true, innocent, and honest place. Floods raged potent, oars were
handcrafted from real wood and, if you got a boat stuck, you damned
well got it off yourself.
Disney also created Grand Canyon! How many times
have you heard it? But, really, in a way, hasn’t he helped? I think
so. There was a time when the Disney philosophy spilled over into
a hamburger that came to be called fast food, which was readily
available to anyone who could get in the door. Later, after the
halt, infirm and blind obtained rights, ramps were built for them.
The same has proved true in the development of Grand Canyon visitation
philosophy which, once more, I use only as example. And to me this
trend toward accessibility indicates that Grand Canyon is becoming
a member of the global community. There’s nothing wrong with that
either. The world is becoming smaller and smaller. In a manner of
speech, we are all becoming biospherians. Now when you get your
boat stuck, you call a helicopter.
Everybody knows the world is shrinking and that
certain adjustments are necessary to accommodate the outrush of
civilization. But to me the ramifications of a Disneyesque mind
set are severe. Such thought clouds, indeed supplants, any vestige
of what’s really happening down there in the Big Ditch. I offer
the observation that today, when Joe Blow from Anytown, USA visits
Grand Canyon, his experience has been whittled down to expectations
not necessarily defined by Joe or, even, Grand Canyon itself. Joe’s
tour has, to a significant degree, been programmed for him via the
method of entry, exit and other (i.e. concessionaire) polls. And
there’s the rub. When translated into Joe’s enjoying a much-desired
taco for lunch, he might come up short. Consensus in absentia has
rewarded him with a limited menu.
Here is where this management idea has got us,
and I promise I’m not kidding. And please note I didn’t say that
anybody in particular deliberately intended to sanction this. All
I’m saying is that this is the intersection where we’re standing
Anyway. Did you realize there’s microgarbage
on the “Colorado River’s” popular camping beaches? Yes; loads of
it, I’m afraid. And microgarbage is getting to be a big deal. There
are various small bits of lettuce or onion or certain bodily fluids
lying exposed on the sand in Grand Canyon. This is a problem for
various reasons. Primarily, it’s not natural. And it requires management
to protect (enhance?) the wilderness experience. Hence come tarps
under kitchen tables, tarps below stargazers, tarps at above-high-water
dishwashing sites during river trips. Which maybe has you wondering,
at least about something. It has me pondering campers and hikers
on the trails, solar driven composting toilets scattered throughout
Grand Canyon in some of the most inaccessible terrain encountered
anywhere on earth and, of course, wilderness as seen through the
eyes of Walt Disney.
I’d say we’re doing the old man proud. We are
now preparing for not quite twice as many visitors in the decade
ahead, ordaining a flood flow for next year, for the beaches we
think, with long term monitoring after that and, otherwise, doing
what we believe, given scientific evidence, is best for Grand Canyon.
And here’s what’s coming on The Grand Canyon
Buffet. The next step at Glen Canyon Dam is selective withdrawal,
a passive ironworks floating behind the dam that would warm “the
river” by channeling water from the top of Lake Powell directly
into the penstocks. I wonder about that—remember all those fish
I told you about? Also, how come they’re more—how to say—strategic
than Las Vegas neon, the fountain in Scottsdale Fashion Plaza, or,
the vegetables on my plate?? And truly, what will you say to your
grandkids? Don’t you get a creepy feeling in your gut when confronted
with that question? I’ll tell you what. Tell them The river is artificial.
It looks—and feels—just like it should.
More seriously, even grievously, I question the
ramifications of life in the tunnel. Grand Canyon is where we become
one with the natural moment. Among all qualities held dearest to
Grand Canyon aficionados, many of them and righteously so, that
is the primordial element missing from this picture. In 1995, equity
is the word. Spell that p-a-r-i-t-y. And forget Grand Canyon.