FLAGSTAFF – An appeals court on Tuesday (July 22) rejected a challenge by environmentalists to change federal rules allowing the use of motorized rafts at the Grand Canyon.
Several environmental groups sued the National Park Service in 2006 over its Colorado River Management Plan, which permits the use of motorized rafts in the canyon. The groups argued that the park service ignored its own rules and policies that say canyon uses shouldn’t impair the wilderness character of the area.
In rejecting that argument, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld a lower court’s decision that said the plaintiffs failed to show the park service acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it adopted its river management plan.
Park Superintendent Steve Martin said he’s pleased with the decision. The plan, he said, took years of work and took into account alternatives that would have excluded motorized rafts.
“Really, a lot of thought was given to it, and it’s one of those where we can certainly appreciate the perspective of the wilderness groups,” he said.
The park service adopted the river management plan in March 2006 after four years of study by a group of scientists, park service managers and other professionals, with input from tour operators, American Indian tribes and members of the public. It’s meant to be an adaptable plan in that alterations can be made if necessary.
The plan changed how motorized and non-motorized rafts are allocated time-slots on the upper Colorado River below the Glen Canyon Dam, spreading them over more months while cutting summertime use. The result is more tourists overall.
The plan also eliminated a waiting list for those who wanted to raft the river in noncommercial boats, replacing it with a lottery system. More than 7,000 trip leaders were on the waiting list, with many waiting more than a decade for one of the coveted slots.
Jo Johnson, co-director of the Boulder, Colo.-based River Runners for Wilderness, said she was disappointed by the court’s decision but not entirely surprised.
An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is unlikely, she said, but the group is not giving up. She said she’s hopeful Congress will consider designating the area as wilderness or that Grand Canyon officials will amend the river management plan to exclude motorized rafts.
“It’s part of what wilderness is intended to mean,” she said. “A wilderness with motors in it is not really wilderness.”
Martin said there are no immediate plans to amend the river management plan.
“If you changed the number of motor trips substantially, then you would have to look at numbers of people and trips,” he said. “You’d have to look at the whole plan; you couldn’t just tweak it a little bit.”