Photograph by Kate Thompson, National Geographic
Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park leaves 4.5 million people a year as awestruck as President Theodore Roosevelt was in 1903.
“Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness,” Roosevelt advised. “You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is to keep it for your children, your children's children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see."
But Park Superintendent Steve Martin reports that Grand Canyon is facing a suite of issues that make it ever more challenging to heed Roosevelt’s plea.
The Colorado River carved the canyon as it wound its way southward over the eons, but the river’s natural run ended in the 1960s when Glen Canyon Dam diverted its flows for power production and the growing West’s thirsty communities.
The dam prevents natural high-water events that once built beaches and sandbars, provided habitat for river and streamside species, and boosted the aquatic food base.
Studies show that a regular schedule of simulated floods could do much to restore the Colorado but the trade-offs, including small dips in power production, remain controversial.
“I think the key thing to stress is that we can do a lot to restore Grand Canyon without affecting any of the water rights,” Martin says. “We realize that we’re going to have the dam but we feel that there is a balance to be struck and we can make significant improvements while still considering the water and power interests.”
Up on the canyon’s north rim, renewed interest in uranium mining has spawned exploratory drilling on Bureau of Land Management territory.
Uranium mining would take place outside park boundaries—but only on the surface. Below the ground it’s a different story, Martin says. “These deposits basically form in the plumbing of the cave and spring water system for the park. The concern is that when you break these up, the water running through the system will contaminate either the [park’s] aquifer or springs.”
Thousand of feet above the canyon, pilots lead some 45,000 tourist overflights each year. The constant aerial assault has drastically changed the canyon experience for those actually inside the park.
Martin acknowledges that, for some, overflights are an essential part of a canyon adventure and they provide a boost to area businesses. Park officials don’t seek an overflight ban, but hope regulated flight plans, schedules, and other adjustments can help to strike a balance that provides a quality experience for all.
Grand Canyon’s aging infrastructure, from roads and trails to water and sewage systems, is another Herculean issue. Much of it was created in the 1920s and 1930s, a time when today’s crowds would have been unthinkable. Much needed repairs and upgrades are part of the park’s staggering $300 million maintenance backlog—a problem that grows each year.
Yet Martin remains optimistic that Americans won’t let the parks down, even with so many other issues demanding attention and dollars.
“Parks like Grand Canyon are international icons,” he says, “and a lot of people love them.”
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