The Colorado River through Grand Canyon is probably the premier river trip in the world. It’s more than simply the grandeur of the Canyon; it also includes elements that are largely missing from other parts of our daily life: spontaneity, uncertainty, surprise, risk, and self-discovery. That unique world, removed from the humdrum, hectic, rat-race above the rim, is what lured me to the river and what keeps me coming back. I imagine that goes for most other guides and outfitters as well as virtually all passengers. But two discomforting trends over the past 15 years have clouded our otherwise bright picture: the increasing numbers of regulations and the decreasing number and diversity of river companies. I believe that these two trends are directly connected and that, unchecked, in the near future could irreversibly remove some or all of these critical elements from our river trips. It does not have to be this way. The upcoming review of the Colorado River Management Plan (CRMP) combined with the red flags raised by the recent prospectus process, a concern by Grand Canyon River Guides and individual outfitters, and a group of thoughtful, well-grounded personnel at Grand Canyon National Park provide a unique opportunity to meet the NPS mandates, provide better certainty for outfitters, and protect the unique and critical elements of the visitor experience.
We are all familiar with the trend to more regulation: no fires, porta-potties, guide licenses, health codes, first-aid requirements, more patrol trips, the Coast Guard, and now drug testing. In the 1970’s there were a handful of Commercial Operating Requirements (COR’s); today there are dozens of pages. It’s tempting to place the blame entirely on this trend, but I think these are symptoms rather than the cause. The other trend is equally obvious; in 1972 there were 21 river companies, now there are 16. Gone are a number of smaller companies and the guides-turned-businessmen that started them. What has not been obvious is that these are directly connected, the result of an upwardly spiraling power struggle between park and outfitters. Nobody consciously started it; it’s nobody’s fault. Yet it’s taking us in a direction noone wants to go.
The history goes something like this: In the 1960’s, one could say that the outfitters held more power, small as it was, only because they had businesses and the park had no regulatory infrastructure. By 1972, the park had grown powerful enough to place user-day limits and actually reduced commercial use by 16%. The bloody “oars vs. motors” battle of the late 1970’s, resulted in the outfitters once again gaining the edge by withholding all funding for Grand Canyon National Park operations until motors were reinstated and commercial allocations increased. Since that time much of the power struggle has been behind the scenes.
However, the recent prospectus process that denied two outfitter contracts (despite good past performance), puts them on back on top although legal maneuvering of one of the outfitters seems to have resulted in a temporary stalemate. The details are not as important as the recognition that the stakes are rising rapidly. As the resources needed to carry on this battle increase, (believe me, significant time, energy, and financial resources were expended by both NPS and outfitters during the prospectus process), there is less attention paid to what we do on the river.
Unless some fundamental changes are made in the relationship between park and outfitter, regulation will continue to increase, the number of river companies will continue to fall and the visitor experience as we know it will suffer. As the stakes rise, the focus of running a river company shifts from running good trips to survival. Small outfitters, fed up with the increased paperwork and uncertainty, will sell. Companies will consolidate to become more powerful in order to survive. The river industry—historically self-regulating, self-enforcing—will need greater regulation and enforcement by the park service. The increased cost of regulation and enforcement will be transferred to the visitor through even higher trip prices. If you want examples, look to any other regulated industry: health care, aviation, transportation.
It can be different. Few outfitters or park staff would consciously want to continue these trends; we’re all held captive. What is the solution? Some of the components may include reinforcing the self-regulating, self-enforcement aspects of the river community, balancing the power of regulators and regulated at new, lower levels, and getting back on track with what our real goals are. We are a regulated industry and will remain one, responsible for the safety and well-being of visitors in one of America’s premier national parks. We are providing a valuable service and share with the park the responsibility for protecting the resource and providing a quality experience.
How do we establish a system based on our common objective of resource protection and visitor experience? Can we focus more on the spirit rather than the letter of the law? How can we still satisfy important health and safety concerns without losing the elements of spontaneity, uncertainty, surprise, risk, and self-discovery for the visitor? How can we meet both public and private objectives cooperatively? With the unsettling experience of the outfitter prospectus process behind us and the review of the CRMP ahead, now is the time for bold ideas, to develop a new way of doing business. Grand Canyon is a good place to start.