Conservationists Sue to Keep Motors out of Grand Canyon

Four environmental and river rafting groups are suing the National Park Service in an attempt to stop helicopter flights and motorized rafting in the Grand Canyon.

Four environmental and river rafting groups are suing the National Park Service in an attempt to stop helicopter flights and motorized rafting in the Grand Canyon.

They want the park designated as wilderness and a recent decision that doubled river use for private boaters overhauled.

It's the first lawsuit since the early 1980s to attack motorized rafting in the Grand Canyon, something the Park Service itself had recommended ending in the 1970s and '80s.

Motorized rafts and helicopters in the canyon have long been a target for some because of the noise they create. The Park Service itself decided repeatedly that motorized rafting was not in the best interest of the canyon's beaches, fish or visitors, the groups said in their lawsuit.

"We feel like we're going to battle on behalf of all American citizens. They deserve to have the Grand Canyon designated as wilderness," said Jo Johnson, co-director of River Runners for Wilderness.

But maybe extra federal protections for the canyon are a moot point.

Motorized rafting could be allowed even if the Grand Canyon and Colorado River were designated as wilderness, Park Service documents state.

Living Rivers, Rock the Earth and Wilderness Watch are the other plaintiffs.

They say the Park Service failed to prove motorized commercial boating is necessary as required by law, failed to fairly distribute boating permits on the river and didn't analyze whether increasing boating by about 2,000 rafters annually will harm the ecosystem.

Of the 24,657 people to be allowed down the Colorado River next year under a new plan to reallocate time on the river, a third will be noncommercial boaters.

That's twice as many as previously allowed but still not enough, the plaintiffs said.

Between 40 percent and 60 percent of all trips on the Grand Canyon are motorized, giving time-starved customers a way to get down the river in a week instead of two, said Mark Grisham, director of the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association, which represents commercial interests.

"If there weren't motorized trips, the majority of Americans would be deprived of the opportunity to see the Grand Canyon by river," Grisham said.

The groups suing have also argued that helicopter use to transport rafters in and out of the canyon should be illegal.

"The park believes that the final environmental impact statement and the record of decision represent a good balance of the many competing interests and we believe that the court will affirm our decision," Grand Canyon spokeswoman Maureen Oltrogge said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, attached a rider to a 1981 bill that would block any federal funds from being used to support removal of motorized boats from Grand Canyon, even if they were only used for drawing up planning documents.

The Park Service reversed course on its mission to phase out motorized boating following Hatch's move and hasn't attempted again since.

A proposal to designate most of the Grand Canyon as wilderness was put forth by Grand Canyon managers in 1993 and has never been transmitted to Congress or any president since, as would be required, according to the Colorado River Management Plan.

The lawsuit is not expected to hold up river trips or permit lotteries for upcoming river trips, as the plaintiffs are not seeking an injunction.

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

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