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Can We Preserve the Grand Canyon’s History and Wilderness for the Next 10,000 Years?

After a thrilling rafting trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, I called up our resident Grand Canyon expert, Kim Crumbo, to talk about conservation management in the region. Kim lived and worked in Grand Canyon National Park for 30 years, first as a professional river guide and later as a Wilderness Coordinator for the National Park Service.

The following blog post is a mix of my own perceptions and opinions about the Grand Canyon, as influenced by my experience on the river and my conversation with Kim. At Wildlands Network, large protected areas like Grand Canyon National Park and other public lands form the building blocks of our Wildways and provide critical room to roam and thrive for myriad species, including Mexican wolves and condors. It’s imperative that we continue to protect such regions, now and into the future. To listen to a short version of my 1-hour conversation with Kim, check out the audio file below.

The Adventure Begins

February 26, 2019 was my first day rafting the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon; it was also the centennial anniversary of the Grand Canyon’s designation as a national park. My 17-day adventure through the lower canyon began by hiking down 4,800 feet and 2 billion years of psychedelic geology to Phantom Ranch. There, two friends and I met up with the rest of our crew, who had already been on the river for over a week. Spirits were high as they enthusiastically greeted us, whooping and howling like wolves.

Rafting down the milky coffee-colored Colorado River, where it meets Havasu Creek, in the Grand Canyon. Photo: Richard Forbes

The river carried us through 200 miles of wondrous Canyon, across a landscape shedding its winter dormancy. The sun lit up the green-blanketed slopes above the river, contrasting with the Canyon’s rim, which was ringed with snow, like salt on a margarita glass. Barrel cacti blushed with the pink hint of new spines, and scorpionweed littered the rocky washes of the side canyons with bold purple flowers. Bighorn sheep herded their young across narrow ledges high above the river. The river, too, seemed to be coursing with the new life of spring: Recent floods deposited veins of silt in the river, coloring the water a shade of milky coffee that energetically knitted together as it flowed toward Lake Mead.

It is a wonder that life can flourish in this extreme environment, in the depths of a maze with impossibly high walls, in a climate so dry it cracked our skin until it bled.

It is a wonder that life can flourish in this extreme environment, in the depths of a maze with impossibly high walls, in a climate so dry it cracked our skin until it bled. Through their resourcefulness and cunning, humans have persisted in the unforgiving Grand Canyon region for millennia, long before the advent of inflatable rafts and paved roads. In quiet moments on the river, I mused on what it was like for early peoples to live amongst the mesmerizing hues, primordial rock, and incomprehensible vastness of the Canyon.

Calling the Grand Canyon Home

Until modern history, humans in the Grand Canyon faced the challenges of an inhospitable landscape. Early peoples navigated 5,000 feet of elevation from rim to canyon floor without modern tools to clear trails. They faced the perils of crossing the mighty Colorado before the Glen Canyon Dam tamed the flow of water, and battled the dry desert climate to raise crops and grow orchards. The earliest record of humans in the Grand Canyon stretches back to 11,000 years ago, a group called Paleo-Indians. The Havasupai and Hualapai tribes have called the Canyon home for many centuries.

Barrel cacti showing off their new pink spines. Photo: Richard Forbes

In addition to the early settlers, the explorers who visited the region were confronted with its wiles. The steep and mind-bending terrain repelled First Lieutenant Christopher Ives of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers on his 1857 expedition to chart the river and its tributaries. He condemned the area in a report:

The region is, of course, altogether valueless…Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado River, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.

Ives’ prophecy that he would be the last to visit the region went unfulfilled. Less than a decade later in 1869, John Wesley Powell led the first Powell Geographic Expedition down the river. The long journey was punctuated by the murder of two party members and a campfire that devastated much of the crew’s supplies.

For all of these peoples, the Grand Canyon bore hardships and loneliness. It was a maze of fiendish chasms and caverns, a sacred homeland, and a landscape at odds with human survival.

From Inhospitable to Mega Popular

Man’s relationship with the big ditch has drastically shifted since 1919, when it was first designated a national park. The minted national treasure is, thankfully, no longer a place where human survival rests on divine providence. Today, an expedition into the Grand Canyon is a reasonably safe experience, if not downright comfortable—where one can sip a cocktail while playing bocce (such was a refined river experience of mine). The opportunity for leisure is a direct result of infrastructure and human development.

Distant shot of canyon country, with lush riparian corridor in foreground
The Grand Canyon. Photo: William C. Gladish

The 20th century birthed a park that, by most measures, proves that the National Park System was indeed “America’s Best Idea.” Over the past 100 years, Grand Canyon National Park has been engineered to be a destination accessible to all. There are pristinely maintained foot trails for the able-bodied, pack burros to ride down, two state-of-the-art visitor centers, and a stagecoach train. There are flushing toilets and a restaurant serving steak dinners 5,000 feet below the canyon rim at Phantom Ranch. There are a dozen ways to see the Grand Canyon: by foot, charter helicopter, train, automobile, on the back of a burro, or by boat. Accessibility, amenities, and attractions are paving the way for a new tourism record each year. In 2018 alone, 6.4 million people visited the Grand Canyon, more than the total number of humans in the region’s entire pre-national park history.

Ives was doubly wrong in his prediction that the Canyon would go “unvisited and undisturbed.” Americans defied Ives’ dim prophecy by turning the Grand Canyon into an incredibly popular and profitable spot. While the establishment of industry at the Grand Canyon has benefited society, degradation and disturbance to the natural environment is the unfortunate price.

The Environmental Price of Popularity

The environmental consequences of human development are varied. One of the largest marks of human industry came in 1963 with the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam. The dam changed the natural flow of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park, resulting in riverbank erosion and the loss of sandbars necessary for native fish. Erosion is shrinking campsite areas on the river during a time when the demand for established campsites is growing.

Red rock wall of the Grand Canyon. Photo: Richard Forbes

Additionally, while lands within the park’s boundaries are protected, natural resource extraction is a major threat to ecologically critical lands outside park boundaries. Uranium mining and mineral extraction contaminate groundwater, which feeds back into the Colorado River, the largest water source on the Colorado Plateau upon which 40 million people depend. As the Southwest becomes more arid due to climate change, the Grand Canyon eco-region is less resilient to human disturbance. Bans on resource extraction, including Rep. Raul Grijalva’s recent support of a bill to ban mining in the Grand Canyon region, address the serious threat of chemical waste contamination.

In addition, insufficient protection for critical wildlife habitat outside the park boundaries reverberates throughout the region. Essential habitat includes unprotected swaths of the old-growth ponderosa pine forest of the Kaibab Plateau. Historic populations of predators, including Mexican wolves, were eliminated from the Grand Canyon in the years surrounding the creation of the park and have not returned to their core habitat. Hunting and poaching cougars, coyotes, and wolves led to an explosion of prey populations like mule deer, creating ecosystem imbalances.

So What Can We Do?

The growing rate of human traffic will continue to degrade the Grand Canyon’s fragile desert ecosystem. One way to address this issue is by expanding the boundaries of protection and placing additional layers of protection on existing national park land. Another solution is to formally designate qualifying land as wilderness, which will give the park legal leverage to block development, thereby slowing the rate of degradation.

The viability of these options is controversial, as the Wilderness Act generally prohibits commercial activities within wilderness areas. The act also prohibits motorized and mechanical access, roads, structures, and other facilities within wilderness areas. Wilderness status, if applied to the river corridor, could prohibit commercial river trips, commercial helicopters, and motor boats, though it would not affect your ability to hike, backpack, or participate in non-motorized river trips.

The 1980 National Park Service Colorado River Management Plan, which proposed protecting one million acres as wilderness (94% of the national park), including the Colorado River corridor, was largely amended to remove restrictions on motorized crafts and highly profitable resource extraction. Thirty-nine years later, the original proposal has not yet been addressed, and the Wilderness Act protects none of the qualifying acreages in Grand Canyon National Park.

When it comes to the Grand Canyon, we are trapped between two impulses: to monetize or to preserve. Our lesser nature tempts us to exploit it, to continue to make its beauty profitable, choosing today’s profits over the far-off environmental health of tomorrow. As it stands, we have protected enough to ensure the landscape stays lucrative in our lifetime, but not enough to ensure long-term ecosystem resilience for the sake of nature and the wild creatures whose survival depends on protected and connected landscapes. Can we strike a balance between humans and nature, and make the next century one of preservation? 

We have inherited the natural and cultural history contained within the depths of the Canyon, and we should do our utmost to preserve it not for just the next 100 years, but the next 10,000 years.

I want future generations—whether they’re floating down the river or peering over the South Rim—to feel connected to the history of diverse life, both wild and human, that makes the Grand Canyon so sacred. To rest assured that in the face of commodification, overuse, and commercialization, our greatest natural treasure retains the wildness that people flock to see each year: a space separate from civilization and noise, a respite from society. We have inherited the natural and cultural history contained within the depths of the Canyon, and we should do our utmost to preserve it not for just the next 100 years, but the next 10,000 years.

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