GCRG logo - waves above name with sheep
  1995
  BQR ~ fall 1995

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 on earth.

   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 right now.

   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.

Shane Murphy

big horn sheep