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"River Runners for Wilderness" Lose Bid to See Motorized Rafts, Helicopters Banned from Colorado River Corridor in Grand Canyon


9th Circuit Court upholds Park Service allowance of motorized rafts down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park. NPS photo.

A coalition of river runners that believes muscles, not motors, should drive rafts down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park has been rebuffed in its bid to see the National Park Service agree with that belief.

An opinion from the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Tuesday affirmed the U.S. District Court’s entry of summary judgment for the Park Service in the lawsuit brought in 2006 against Grand Canyon Superintendent Steve Martin. The four plaintiffs -- River Runners for Wilderness, Rock the Earth, Wilderness Watch and Living Rivers -- challenged the national park's 2006 Colorado River Management Plan, which among other things, permits the continued use of motorized rafts and support equipment on the Colorado River within Grand Canyon National Park.

A hearing was held in October 2007 in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona in which United States District Judge David G. Campbell rendered a decision in November 2007 in favor of the National Park Service. The plaintiffs appealed that decision in 2008 to the 9th Circuit appellate court. On Tuesday that court adopted the lower court's opinion in its entirety and affirmed its grant of summary judgment for the National Park Service and two intervenors (Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association and Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association), holding that the plaintiffs failed to show that the Park Service acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it adopted the 2006 CRMP.

“We are pleased that the Appeals Court agreed with the District Court in affirming the Park’s Colorado River Management Plan,” said Superintendent Martin. “The plan is the result of many
years of work to protect park resources and provide quality visitor experiences on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park, and required making many difficult decisions after considering extensive analysis of impacts and widely divergent points of view on many issues. We look forward to working with persons of all interests, including wilderness advocates, as we continue to implement the plan.”

A copy of the Court of Appeals 2009 opinion can be found on the park’s Web site at, the 2007 District Court judgment can be found at


I should think allowing the motorized rafts makes it feasible for inexperienced people to enjoy their National Park river. People who want to use their muscle, do so; but give others their right to ride the river by motor. Its not like its a pristine waterway, after coming through Lake Powell with all kinds of watercraft on it, and going into Lake Mead, so I don't really get the drift here (excuse the unintentional pun). However, I must admit I am not a "waterway" person, so I am sure there is someone out there somewhere who can set me straight.

The key work here is MOTORIZED. The more we can keep snowmobiles, helicopters and motorized watercraft out of our National Parks the better.

Isn't a lot of the helicopter use and some of the motorized rafting done by the NPS and other government agencies? Anybody know roughly what percent is management and research?

I have had the privilage of running motorboats in Grand Canyon for 6 years. Over the years I have had the opportunity to take so many different people into the bottom of Grand Canyon, including people with disabilities and elderly. My 80 year old grandpa was able to join me on a trip recently and it was a huge moment in his life. I work for a company that is currently pouring money into battery powered outboard engines , along with several other outfitters, resulting in a sucessful test run this spring. In the meantime we are using super low emission 4 stroke outboards. We truely keep Grand Canyon open to the public in a way that oars alone couldn't. I am proud of our efforts towards better technologies and educating our clients about how to enjoy the place with the least impact. The commercial guides work harder than anyone else at keeping the river corridor free from trash, multiple trails, and invasive species. We are not the problem, and the outboards are not the problem. I would like to see a real environmental impact statement regarding the river corridor post dam.

No inexperienced people can enjoy the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon except via commercial river trips, where the experienced river guide does the rowing (steering). Its just too dangerous. Private parties must meet experience requirements, and now win a lottery (the previous wait list was over a decade). My understanding of the motorized boat issue isn't that river guides are lazy or not strong enough, but that not everyone can take 2 weeks to put in at Lees Ferry and take out at Diamond Creek by Lake Mead. GC River Guide can help me out here, but I believe that most motorized trips are substantially quicker: 7-8 days through the canyon, or 1 to a couple of days at the western downstream end. Motorized rafts can also be larger, and thus work for some visitors who could not make the trip in a non-motorized raft. The issue for NPS was how to allow the maximum number of people experience the river, given the very few put in and take out points, and finite set of possible camping locations. I prefer less noise, but given the background noise of the river in the inner gorge and the efforts of the commercial outfits to reduce engine noise (for their own customers, too), the management plan that came out of the long process is a pretty good shot at maximizing visitors with no significant impairment of the resources for future generations.

As for overflights, at GRCA the vast majority of helicopter flights (let alone fixed-wing) are commercial sightseeing: NPS and research flights are a small fraction (possibly less than SAR). [Inventory & monitoring can't afford helicopter time.] I don't know what fraction are return flights from commercial river trips. In Everglades NP, the opposite is true: the wilderness areas prohibit airboats even for research & management (and airboats don't work in the dry season anyway), so helicopters with floats are the only access to places in the center, miles from canals, and there often are 2 or 3 helicopters hopping around during peak times of the year. I don't think that there are any commercial air tours in the Everglades.

Thank you, tomp, as you said what I meant. I know inexperienced people cannot do that canyon on their own, but they can enjoy it because the vendors provide the rafts and guides. Guess I wasn't clear on that, but you said it very succinctly for me.

River Running (floating) is entirely dependant upon the motorized world! An aluminum boat brought on an aluminum trailer behind a steel truck over a rock highway, full of frozen meat brought here a week before the turkey's flight from Boston, then shuttled however many miles again....the again...
And it is all worth it! Imagine 8 months of no engines in your hometown. I'd say Grand Canyon is doing just fine.
Ride a bicycle and we'll talk.

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