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On Canyoneering, Politics, and Teens Studying Climate Change in the National Parks


Canyoneering explores another dimension of the national parks. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Slipping from the top of the arch into the abyss below was not a difficult move, but it certainly rattled my psyche. Even though the sandstone band I was perched on was not much more than 4 feet wide, it was stable. Even though it towered some 100 feet above the wash down below, it felt secure. Putting my faith into the rope cinched to my climbing harness and dropping into the void down below went completely against my desire for self-preservation.

And yet, it quickly became an incredible experience forever seared into my memory as I slowly lowered myself to the canyon floor in the grotto below, pausing at times to twirl 360 degrees and visibly inhale the red-rock landscape. Moments later, after patiently talking my then 9-year-old son to push himself off the arch, I was rewarded to hear his yelps of delight as his fears were quickly overcome by one of the "coolest things" he had ever done in his young life.

Canyoneering is one of the most exhilarating ways to experience southern Utah's canyon country. Descending on a rope into the gulf down below brings you face-to-face not just with the landscape in a most unusual way, but it opens up for exploration grottoes and canyons that you otherwise likely would never see. And it measures, and often strengthens, your mettle.

Arches and Canyonlands national parks are well-known haunts for those who canyoneer. While the experience I recalled above was on U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands, not National Park Service grounds where they don't take kindly to folks who tread atop arches, I later would venture several more times into canyon country with a rope, and those treks did take me into the backcountry of a national park. All those trips were led by a commercial guide, as I had neither the gear nor the experience to embark on such a trip myself. Paddling is my forte, not descending slickrock slopes greater than 45-degrees or to the brink of cliffs from which you descend into nothingness with hopes of settling back onto terra firma.

While Zion National Park is another great rockscape perfect for canyoneering, my odds of experiencing it are not particularly good, for that park does not allow commercial guides to work in its backcountry. That came to light last week when a Utah man was convicted of illegally offering canyoneering treks into Zion. Why Arches and Canyonlands allow these guides and Zion does not is both easy to explain yet somewhat difficult to understand.

Bonnie Schwartz, the chief ranger at Zion, tells me that, quite simply, when the park's General Management Plan was last updated, back in 2001, no one cared enough about commercially guided canyoneering trips to see that such an activity was included in the GMP. “In the history of Zion, commercial tours, guided tours in the backcountry, have never been allowed,” she said.

Allowing such trips could alter the backcountry experience, the chief ranger added, by putting more people into the backcountry, or by limiting the number of private groups that could obtain a canyoneering permit because room had to be made for commercial outfitters.

"I don’t know that it’s contradictory," Chief Ranger Schwartz replied when I pointed out that her cross-state sister parks, Arches and Canyonlands, allow commercial canyoneering trips, "but it is a little confusing.”

While the chief ranger agreed that allowing commercially guided trips might open up such backcountry wonders as the Subway and Mystery Canyon in Zion to canyoneering neophytes and could also reduce search-and-rescue operations as only qualified canyoneering guides would be permitted, she also pointed out that, “Not having commercial guides doesn’t appear to be keeping people from these areas.”

For 2008, Zion recorded 62 days when it filled every single permit spot -- 80 individuals in all -- for the Subway journey.

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For those concerned about whether the younger generations in this country have, or will develop, an affinity for the national parks, give some thanks to the North Cascades Institute, the National Park Foundation, and North Cascades National Park.

This summer these organizations shepherded a diverse group of 19 high school students from Chicago, Washington, D.C., Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle through North Cascades National Park for a month. While the program's official title was Parks Climate Challenge: North Cascades 2009, the students not only were introduced to the science and impacts of climate change visible at North Cascades, but also sampled the out-of-doors - the forests, the lakes, the streams.

For many, according to the institute, it was their first time camping. They hiked to glaciers, swam with bull trout, dodged thunderstorms, taught fifth graders about CO2, and went canoeing for days. It was an opportunity to both connect with a national park and witness impacts of climate change. The group was provided with an audio recorder and two cameras to document this experience and tell their story.

To get a glimpse of these students, hear what they learned, and see some of what they experienced, check out this video. It's worth your time.

In September, the Parks Climate Challenge team will travel to the other Washington to meet with experts in climate change policy, national parks and community engagement. When they return home, they will work with a teacher-mentor to design a service project at a local national park that engages more youth with doing something about climate change.

This program was made possible by generous support from PG&E.

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With Congress reconvening this week, it will be interesting to see how soon Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, lifts his hold on the nomination of Jon Jarvis as director of the National Park Service. If you recall, the senator placed the hold as a favor to U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who was trying to get some correspondence from Grand Canyon National Park.

It was no short shopping list that Rep. Bishop had for Grand Canyon Superintendent Steve Martin. Indeed, the Republican requested “all documents and correspondence of all types” between the superintendent and the park’s science director and the media or any individuals working with the National Parks Conservation Association, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the Grand Canyon Trust, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Arizona Archeological Council, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Sierra Club, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. From January 1, 2007, to the present.

At last check, Interior Department officials were still sorting through the materials that the Grand Canyon staff had assembled and not yet forwarded them to Mr. Bishop nor Mr. Coburn. And neither of the Republicans' staff has yet gotten back to the Traveler with an explanation of just what they're looking for.

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It's wise not to have commercial guides for canyoneering in Zion. Commercial guide services already operate legally in many canyons near there on BLM-managed public lands, such as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Visitor demand in Zion focuses on a few popular canyons, and all available permit spots are filled, as you reported. My concern is that commercial guiding could lead to pressure on NPS to increase the party-size and daily visitor limits in the canyons. The limits were carefully set to avoid harming plant and animal life and to preserve the wild canyon setting for visitors.

Teaching about "climate change"
Is similar to preaching
In that it appeals largely to believers
Who for salvation are reaching.

In the absence of a clear definition of "climate change"
And correspondingly pertinent, current empirical data
Curricular content is a "figtree" of the teacher's imagination (after the Kingfish)
That will be recognized as such sooner or later.

Don't teach the religion of "climate change" to my kids...teach them SCIENCE!

This is ridiculous. The debate about climate change is over. There is no longer disagreement among real scientists about whether it is happening & what's causing it [us]. You can argue about the details, whether it matters, & what should or shouldn't be done about it, but continuing this pathetic plaint that it doesn't exist just makes you look like an irrelevant, uneducated religious yokel.

The topic of guiding in the Parks is impossible. There's yelping that there's no guiding in Zion, while there's relentless, loud yelping that there's too much [river] guiding in the Grand Canyon. There's a long line of people whining that they aren't allowed to run OHV tours of the White Rim Trail, & a long line of people screaming that there are too many guided OHV tours in the rest of Canyonlands.

The Parks don't exist to provide economic opportunity to citizens who see a way to make a buck on the highly publicized & developed National Parks. Oddly, those people see no irony in their hot desire for this heavily subsidized business opportunity while jabbering on about how government "violating their rights" should stay out of their business.

Parks exist to "preserve & protect for the enjoyment of future generations"...pretty contradictory & hard to find a balance, IMHO, & certainly not the same strategy works for every park.

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