Grand Canyon explores new ways to manage backcountry

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Posted: Dec 01, 2015 2:00 PM
Grand Canyon explores new ways to manage backcountry

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Most of the millions who visit the Grand Canyon each year take in its sweeping views from along the edge, where they can follow paved trails, grab a bite to eat or ride shuttle buses to scenic overlooks.

But increasingly, more physically demanding activities like rock climbing, canyoneering and extended hikes are luring visitors into the park's depths.

Now, Grand Canyon officials are exploring ways to manage those who venture below the rim and into more rugged terrain, and protect the park's resources. Here's a look at what they're considering for backcountry management and why:

WHAT IS THE BACKCOUNTRY?

Anything below the rim of the Grand Canyon is considered the backcountry.

Much of those 1.1 million acres has been managed as a wilderness area since 1980, which means motorized travel and power drilling to place bolts into rocks largely is prohibited.

The backcountry is divided into four zones that range from having developed campsites and lodging, water faucets and well-maintained trails to zero amenities and only natural water sources.

Overnight stays in the inner canyon require a backcountry permit.

NOISE, CONGESTION

Between 30,000 and 35,000 people a year spend the night in the backcountry, many using the most popular trails from the rim to get there, according to park officials.

Those backpackers and other hikers who go between the north and south rims have put a strain on resources. Hikers complain of the noise, trash dumped along the routes and long lines for toilets.

The park wants to get a better idea of the number of day hikers, and wants to monitor relatively new activities like rim-to-rim excursions, canyoneering, climbing and river-assisted backpacking trips.

CANYONEERING AND CLIMBING

The 1988 plan didn't take into account activities like rock climbing or canyoneering, which can be multi-day expeditions into slot canyons, caves and other remote areas.

The park has no policy for anchoring ropes, and the activities aren't listed on backcountry permits. The park wants the ability to require single-day permits that identify the routes and restrict the number of people if needed.

FEE FOR DAY HIKES

Hikers can walk down the three most popular trails — Bright Angel and South Kaibab from the South Rim, and North Kaibab from the North Rim — as far as they'd like, although the National Park Service discourages trips to the Colorado River and back in a single day.

Each of the three proposals for revising the backcountry management plan would institute a day-use permit for hiking more than 5 miles on those trails and at least a $5 fee.

Park officials say it's meant to cut down on overcrowding and improve the experience for hikers. The park would reserve the right to limit group sizes and set daily caps.

TELL THE PARK WHAT YOU THINK

The three options for backcountry management took years to develop. Each has a different focus, from balancing recreation with resource protection, to solitude, to expanding recreation activities.

Another option would leave things as is. The public has until Feb. 24 to comment on the proposals.

Public meetings are planned Wednesday at the Grand Canyon and Monday in Flagstaff.

The park says it will be a year or more before a final decision is made. For more information, go to www.parkplanning.nps.gov/grca .