Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Grand Canyon National Park's Backcountry Management Plan

The Grand Canyon by Hannibal Bauliah taken from Arizona Highways

“In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll begin to see something, maybe. Probably not.”

Almost 50 years after Ed Abbey published Desert Solitaire we're finally taking his advice to heart.  Popularity has finally reached the Grand Canyon National Park's front and back doors.  People are visiting the Canyon now more than any other time in history.  However, the newest visitor isn't the kind of which Abbey speaks...the new visitor has no problem leaving the car as they are in search of an adventure of epic proportion.  The Grand Canyon National Park acknowledges this and has taken the first step in protecting and preserving both the visitor's use and experience and the non-human resources that lay within the park's boundaries.

In November 2015, in response to the overwhelming increase in use in the Canyon's backcountry areas, including the popular corridor trails (Bright Angel and the South and North Kaibab), park management released a Backcountry Management Plan Draft Environmental Impact Statement.  It's been desperately needed as the old Backcountry Management Plan (which the park currently operates under) dates back to 1988.  The ultimate purpose of the new plan is to "...evaluate the impacts of a range of alternatives for managing backcountry use in Grand Canyon National Park in a manner that protects and preserves natural and cultural resources and natural processes and provides a variety of visitor experiences while minimizing conflicts among various users."

The draft plan discusses four alternatives for managing climbing, canyoneering, extended day hiking and running, Tuweep (a location on the north rim on the western edge of the park) day use, human waste management, commercial overnight backpacking, river-assisted backcountry use and wilderness use.  In short, the plan covers anything that happens in the backcountry of the park.  Basically, those places that aren't developed and/or paved.  Topics like the Arizona Trail, bicycling, river-assisted backcountry trips, overnight backpacking, backcountry vehicle tours, climbing, canyoneering and extended day hiking and running are deliberated.  Components like permits, reservation systems, group sizes, use limits, designations, equipment, education, safety and monitoring are covered in varying degrees across the four management alternatives. 

Please see all of the draft's details here for yourself on the park's website.  There is an 32 page Executive Summary so you don't have to wade through the full 600+ page document.  However, you have until March 4th, 2016 to make your comments.  A huge component of the EIS process is public comment.  Everyone, yes even you, has an opinion and a voice and this impacts greatly what comes out in the final management plan.  It's like casting your vote, but it's better because you get to express why you like one detail and not another.  You can view my submitted "comment" at the bottom of this piece.

Since most of the readers of this blog fall into the "extended day user hiker and/or runner" category, here is a glimpse at how the park might wish to handle Extended Day Use Hikers and Runners:

Here is the area where these management actions would take effect (see below).  This would affect any rim to river and rim to rim daily outings.

Other proposed management actions discuss a flexible backcountry permitting process for Arizona Trail through-hikers, building additional camp sites for through hikers and allowing biking on the Arizona Trail on the North Rim (see below).  

Other management actions focus on Human Waste Management (see below):

It's your turn to comment.  Do it here before March 4th, 2016 and let your opinion count.  Remember to qualify yourself (why does this matter to you), be constructive (give examples), rational (understand that other humans are reading this) and detailed (the more specific the better) in your response.

Here's an example and what I submitted to the Grand Canyon National Park in regards to their Backcountry Management Plan and Draft Environmental Impact Statement.


January 19, 2016

To whom it may concern,

My name is Ian Torrence.  I’m an ultramarathon runner and live in Flagstaff, AZ.  I’ve finished more than 195 ultras, finished the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim ten times and have run/hiked down to the Colorado River and back countless times.  I am the race director of the fourth annual Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100 Mile, 55K & Relays (http://www.aztrail.org/ultrarun/) held in September in the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests. The race finishes in Tusayan and is a fundraiser for the Arizona Trail Association.
I’ve worked for the National Park Service for ten years. One of my positions was with the Lake Mead Exotic Plant Management Team where I worked on Himalayan blackberry (Indian Gardens) and tamarisk control (Phantom Ranch) in the Grand Canyon.  I was a supervisor for the American Conservation Experience (ACE) and spent several tours working along side NPS trail crews performing maintenance/repairs on the Bright Angel and South and North Kaibab Trails.  I’ve fought wildfire in the park as part of a NPS crew (sourced from Grand Teton NP) and assisted with one medical evacuation on the Bright Angel as part of that crew.  I’ve volunteered with the park’s Vegetation Crew to map tamarisk in the Slate Creek drainage.  I’m also a volunteer Arizona Trail Association Trail Steward (Section 35b & 36a).
I’d like to weigh in on the Grand Canyon National Park’s Backcountry Management Plan Draft EIS.  First off, I applaud the efforts and agree that it’s time to revisit and revise the 1988 plan.  Here are my specific comments, concerns and suggestions:

Arizona Trail –

Through hiker itineraries are next to impossible to nail down.  The Action Alternatives in the Draft EIS will relieve through hiker stress level, enhance their trek experience and make cross-canyon travel safer. The preferred alternatives promote the use of the AZT as it’s intended.  Through hiker numbers, currently, are very small and dispersed.  Their impact would be minimal.  Anecdotal data suggests that about 75 people per year are thru-hikers: 45 are northbound in the spring and 30 are southbound in the autumn. In addition to that, there are around 25 thru-riders on mountain bikes each year.
I agree with:

1)  NEPA-approved walk-in camping sites near the South Kaibab Trailhead for AZT through hikers.
2) Both private and commercial bike use on the AZT’s North Rim segment (between the N. Kaibab TH and the park boundary).

However, I ask that the flexible backcountry permit system for AZT through hikers fall under an Adaptive Management classification. AZT through hiker numbers has risen exponentially in the past few years. If the trend continues this could increase competition for backcountry permits and it may negatively affect permit availability and backcountry experience of the non-through hiker.  The management plan should decide what is an acceptable number of permits that can be issued to AZT through hikers at any one time.  I also suggest that through-bikers (who hike their bikes on their backs across the canyon) also be considered in the flexible AZT backcountry permit system.

Extended Day Hiking and Running Management –

Many agencies have instituted successful extended day use permit systems to protect both the user and resources.  The NPS and US Forest Service’s Mt. Whitney Zone and the Bureau of Land Management’s Coyote Buttes Permit Area (Vermillion Cliffs NM) are two examples that have effectively minimized overuse.  Instituting a similar system for the Grand Canyon’s lower Corridor Trails is reasonable.

1) Extended Day Use Permits:  The Canyon is a dangerous place and a place that has rules that should be followed. An educational component is critical to imparting Leave No Trace ethics as well as park rules, regulations and safety information to the user.  I agree that extended day use permits are needed, as they are an excellent way to do this.  I also agree on the current area to which extended day use is falls (below Manzanita Resthouse on the North Kaibab Trail, below Tip-Off on the S. Kaibab Trail and below the East Tonto Trail junction on the Bright Angle Trail). However, I ask for these considerations:
a.     Make extended day-use permits required year-round.  This will ensure the park educates extended day-users, allows the park to track use on the lower Corridor Trails, improves trail rapport between users and promotes the importance of safety awareness.
b.     Make day use permits available two years in advance online and/or at local kiosks located outside the park (for example: Flagstaff, Williams, Tusayan, Kanab, Jacob Lake). This is fair and convenient to both out-of-state/country users and local trail users.  This also allows the park to prepare, in advance (for example: increase enforcement and/or volunteer staffing), for large trail use days. 
c.     Local trail users come to the Canyon frequently throughout the year.  Allow for the ability to apply for (and thus plan for) multiple extended day use dates at a time.  This is convenient.  However, limit day-use permits to six user-days per person at any one time.  Once a day-use permit expires or is canceled the user can then reapply.
d.     Again, local trail users return to the trails below the Tonto Rim multiple times a year.  Allow the educational component of the permit to be valid for a calendar year so the literature doesn’t need to be re-read each time a user wants to go for a hike or run.  Prepare the online portal so that user information (ID and password) is stored, can be recalled and tracked.  This will help with safety and tracking use (see “b” above).
e.     Day use permit fees should be nonrefundable, but may be cancelled (thus opening the space for another user). Ensure that the permit is only valid for the individual who applied for it, no transfers.  This will eliminate permit scalping.
f.      Ensure the $5 day use permit fee returns to Corridor Trail maintenance, enforcement, education and improvements.
g.     Be prepared for an increase in use of the South Kaibab Trail – Tonto Trail – Bright Angel Trail Loop. Improve signage and mileage/time indications for this loop on informational/safety brochures, signs and displays.

2    2) Group Size: With the advent of social media (like “Facebook Canyon Crossing Parties”) it’s more imperative now more than ever that group size limits be set for trips below the Tonto Rim on Corridor Trails.  I ask that extended day use non-commercial running or hiking parties are limited to a maximum of 20 individuals year round.  This will ensure water sources and rest room facilities will be accessible within a reasonable amount of time to other users who show up simultaneously with the larger groups.  Limiting numbers to 20/group will help mitigate trail congestion (for example: excessively long “conga” lines).

       3) Daily Use Limits:  Most of the extended day-use hiking and running occurs within certain timeframes.  In the Draft EIS the word “seasonal” is used often.  I ask that you specifically define “seasonal.”  Anecdotally, April/May and September/October are the busiest times for extended day-use hikes and runs. During these peak seasons I ask for these considerations:

a.     Limit the amount of extended day-users per day to a reasonable number (for example: 250 users/day) during these peak four months.
b.     The Tahoe Rim Trail regulates mountain bike use (https://www.tahoerimtrail.org/index.php/mountain-biking) by alternating the days bikes can use the trail.  Do the same with large group sizes on the Corridor Trails.  Groups larger than six may use the trail on even numbered days during these four months.  Individuals (or groups of 6 or less) can use the trail at any time during these four peak months.  This will encourage smaller group sizes.

Human Waste Management –

The Manzanita Rest House was a logical addition to the park’s rest room inventory.  However, I suggest that more Corridor Trail restrooms will negatively affect the view shed and user experience. I ask that, not only should River Corridor and commercially guided backpacking trips be required to carryout human waste (as proposed in the Draft EIS), but that users of the lower Corridor Trails should also do the same.  This kind of management isn’t unprecedented. Mt. Whitney and Mt. Rainier are two working examples where the user must carry out their own waste.  Extended day use runners and hikers should carry their waste to either the North or South Rim if they need to “go” between facilities. 

Timing of Effective Management –

No matter what management alternatives are decided upon, I ask that all new requirements/practices be advertised aggressively and meticulously through the park’s website and brochures and in the public media for at least a full year before they become effective. The local communities depend on tourism dollars and we want to avoid visitors canceling trips due to misunderstanding and inconvenience.

Ian Torrence
Flagstaff, AZ