The Grand Canyon: Development or Conservation. Lessons from the Recent Past Essay

The Grand Canyon: Development or Conservation. Lessons from the Recent Past


March 2007 was a momentous month for one of America’s greatest natural site, the Grand Canyon. In March 2007 the Grand Canyon Skywalk officially opened.  There was much joy and at the same time consternation. The Skywalk is located on the Hualapai American Indian reservation in Arizona and it was the locals who decided that they needed to do something to promote tourism in the region so that they could earn much needed revenue to tide over their poverty.

The Skywalk is a horseshoe-shaped glass-bottomed walkway extending 60 feet out over the edge of the Grand Canyon (GC). The drop off below is 4,000 feet. This is a combination of nature and man’s enterprise. To create the Skywalk on such a natural hazard to some, beauty to most was not anticipated. But American enterprise sees no limits and is ever willing to experiment in the unlikeliest of places. The Skywalk on the Grand Canyon is one such symbol.

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 It is expected that a large number of tourists will flock to this part of the GC to view this world heritage site and the local community will benefit as a result of this. But conservationists and lovers of this natural paradise are concerned that this might open up a Pandora’s box and let loose forces of commercial exploitation of the GC and destroy the fragile eco-balance of this natural wonder. Colorado river began carving the Grand Canyon almost six million years ago. (Weintraub, 2001). It appears that human hands and feet are planning to do the same that the great river did for the earth.

The Grand Canyon has seen many large structures come up over the years. To set the record straight, it must be noted that one of the earliest structures in the area is a watchtower built in May 1933. Building a structure that provided the widest possible view of the Grand Canyon and yet harmonized with its setting was the task of architect Mary Colter. She was hired by the Santa Fe Railroad in 1930 to design a gift shop and rest area at Desert View Point. Colter designed the Watchtower, which opened in May 1933. This is just one instance of the need to develop tourism in the area, but keeping in mind the ecological balance of the Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP). (Grand Canyon, Nd).  Before examining the pros and cons of this debate, one needs to understand a little more about the area itself and the dynamics of the development of the region.


The Grand Canyon has been carved over the millennia by the carved by the Colorado river, in the state of Arizona. The GC is largely contained in the Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) and lies on the Colorado Plateau in north-western Arizona. It was established in 1919. It was one of the first national parks in the United States.

The GC, cut by the Colorado River, is truly immense and impressive, averaging 4,000 feet deep for its entire 277 miles. It is 6,000 feet deep at its deepest point and 15 miles at its widest. What is remarkable about this natural reserve is that the Colorado river has exposed nearly two billion years of the earth’s history and layer after layer of sediment shows us the manner in which the geology of the earth has evolved. (Canyon, Nd).

The GC has always been the cynosure of the American environmentalist as well as the heritage protector. Thus it was in the 19th Century that the movement for conservation and preservation took roots. The GC was first afforded Federal protection in 1893 as a Forest Reserve and later as a National Monument. It achieved National Park status in 1919, three years after the creation of the National Park Service. The GCNP gets close to five million visitors each year. (Grand Canyon, Nd)

Today the GCNP is a well regarded site in the world, indicating the sanctity with which it is recognized. The GCNP is thus nominated as a World Heritage Site, and encompasses a total of 1,218,375 acres. The land is semi-arid and the topography consists of raised plateaus and structural basins. The most unique feature of this Park is the drainage systems that have been cut deeply through the rock, forming steep-walled canyons. This is what visitors from all over the world come to see. The drainage is perhaps what we need to learn from nature. There are many issues which provide us a perspective and understanding of how the earth is shaped. To the more perceptive observer, it will provide a view of how using the lessons from the Grand Canyon community structures can be created.

The GCNP is well known for its geology and the oldest human remains found there are some 12,000 years old. GCNP has records of over 4,800 archeological resources and it offers an excellent record of three of the four eras of geological time. One also comes across a rich fossil record, a vast array of geologic features and rock types. Within the Park one also comes across numerous caves containing extensive and significant geological, paleontological, archeological and biological resources. The GC is considered to be one of the finest examples of arid-land erosion systems in the world. A deeper study of the area would perhaps indicate to us many secrets of nature which have remained unexplored particularly of the arid waste lands and even enable us to preserve these better.

The great biological diversity of the GCNP is because of the presence of five of the seven life zones and three of the four, desert types in North America. The Park is also an ecological refuge, containing undisturbed remnants of dwindling ecosystems like the boreal forest and desert riparian communities. The GCNP is home to a large number of rare and protected plant and animal species. Over 1,500 plants, 355 bird, 89 mammalian, 47 reptile, 9 amphibian, and 17 fish species are found here.

Many challenges face the US Government’s administrators who manage the resources in the GCNP. These include issues relating to: the recent reintroduction into the wild of the highly endangered California Condor, over flight noise levels, water rights disputes with various tribal reservations that live in and around the park, and forest fire management.

Many people believe that the GCNP is so large that there will be no impact of human intervention in the Canyons vast womb. They tend to forget that the numbers have increased greatly over the years. Thus big as though the GCNP is, it cannot remain unaffected by the five million visitors who come each year. The transport, food, hotels and other consumables that are used all create a problem for the Park — “the one great sight which every American should see” to quote Roosevelt. (GCNP, Nd).  The environmental issues that are a challenge to the Park administration are also issues concerning wider human audiences.

There are several matters that affect the GCNP as a whole. One of the issues of concern is air pollution. We are informed that on some days in summer when the wind blows from the Southwest, particulate haze from southern California restricts the view of the Canyon. The, Grand Canyon Visibility Transport Commission was created by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, to determine what steps were needed to improve visibility on the Colorado Plateau.

There also exist FAA regulations concerning covering over flying of the Park. This goes back to 1975 when Congress had recognized the potential impact that aircraft flying over GC would have on the natural quiet of the park. With several thousand tourists flying over or into the park, it became imperative in 1988 to draw up air corridors and over flying regulations to restrict the impact on the GC. Forty Four per cent of the Park falls within the Flight Free zones and within these no aircraft are allowed to fly below 4,420 meters. (Edwards, 1997)

Another problem area for the GNCP is water. The land itself is semi-arid and though drained by the Colorado river, the number of people staying the in the area cannot be sustained by the available water. The Colorado river drains 626,780 sq km, and is used to irrigate 4,050 square kilometers of land. Average water consumption is 163 liters per visitor. And just imagine the Hualapai American Indians do not get drinking water! This is the travesty of modernity that the original inhabitants are deprived its bounty, thus giving some truth to what some of them have stated that they were never consulted before creating any infra structure in the Canyon

Extraction rights to the Colorado river were signed in 1922 in the Colorado River Compact. The GCNP was not a signatory and therefore the Park cannot extract water from the river. Instead, water has to be taken from the Roaring Springs on the North side of the GC, using a pipeline. This is susceptible to damage; massive landslides after the heavy rain in March 1995 for example, destroyed trails and the pipeline, and water had to be trucked in for two weeks at the rate of 1,135,500 liters a day.

Therefore water management of the river is intense. As a result the Colorado, for the excitement it presents to white water rafters and its wild looking nature, is anything but a wild river, because of the lack of water in it. Glen Canyon Dam, 24 km upstream from the GCNP, closed its gates in 1963 and it took twenty years for the reservoir behind it to fill. It has had profound impacts on the river. (Ibid.)

In 1869, the famous geologist John Wesley Powell had indicated that the geological configuration of the Colorado river made it too thick to drink and too thin to plough the land, bringing out the irony of nature. Average water flows are now a tenth of pre-dam, and sediment transport has been reduced from 380,000 tons a day to 40,000 tons as the dam becomes a giant silt trap. The river was dumping such huge volumes of silt into Lake Mead, the reservoir behind Hoover Dam downstream of the Park, that in just 35 years, it had more silt than 98 per cent of the reservoirs at that time had capacity.

The temperature of the river no longer reaches a summer average because the water release from the dam comes from deep in the reservoir. Thus the water is quite cold. As a result, three species of endemic fish have become extinct, and three more are endangered. But trout, which have been introduced, are flourishing, as are the Bald Eagles which now feed on them. This may indicate that there is plenty of scope for experimentation in preservation, while not much work is perhaps being done in this sphere. There are strong grounds to believe that extension of experimentation for preservation undertaken in other is due for the Grand Canyon as well.

Those negotiating the white waters of the Colorado River also notice another change. They say that the rapids are getting bigger, as the river does not have the strength to bulldoze boulders washed out of the side canyons, downstream. River beaches and sand bars have disappeared, as new material is denied them. Vegetation is choking the banks, as the dam has ended the annual spring floods, which used to clean them.

At the GCNP, it is recognized that fire is a natural process and is essential to maintain the ecological balance. Fire suppression on the North Rim has reduced the Aspen to Conifer ratio as Aspens are regenerated mainly through fire, which reduces competition for light and nutrients with slower growing conifers. Natural fires have helped restrict Pinyon Pine-juniper woodland to rocky soils and rough topography. Therefore what the GCNP is undertaking is fire management rather than fire suppression. Prescribed burns are thus set on a regular basis to prevent the build up of fuel and allow regeneration of natural vegetation. If a lightning triggered fire starts in an area due for burning it is classed as a prescribed natural fire and is allowed to burn under supervision. Otherwise it is classed as a wildfire and is fought vigorously. (David Edwards, Ibid.)

If the five million visitors who visit the Park each year continues and one can envisage that will increase, it will make the task of conservation even more difficult. So what the NPS is doing is to several things, amongst which are to restrict motorized vehicles in the Park and provide more public transport. But for this to succeed there must be enough public awareness that is important to use public transport to conserve the Park. In a 1992 visitor survey, concern was expressed about there being too many vehicles, but at the same time that there was not enough parking. If there are restrictions, there will be loss of tourists thereby resulting in a spiral of economic penury in the area, which needs to be avoided at all costs. Thus measures were to be taken to ensure that the GC was better managed. The General Management Plan was the outcome of this awareness.

The General Management Plan of the NPS of 1995 is now in the public domain and presents proposals for the next 10-15 years. The point is that, political will and capital to enforce this plan appears to be lacking. One may quote in full here what Theodore Roosevelt said about the Park in 1903. “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it.” He recognized that this was the handiwork not just of nature but time as well. (The Parks for People, 1972). Understanding the devastation that frequent travelers to the Canyon to cause, Roosevelt also indicated that the best thing to do is to preserve it for the children and the grand children as well as the coming generations. This was as per him the best gift that could be offered to them in the years and centuries ahead. Roosevelt’s words seem to have been lost to posterity. But today as visitors flock to the Park one has to admit that the millions of people who walk over the area are already rendering Roosevelt’s advice hollow.

The GMP for GCNP guides the management of resources, visitor use, and general development at the park. The aim is to provide a foundation from which to protect park resources while providing for meaningful visitor experiences. The direction for future park management is based on the laws establishing the park and the National Park Service (NPS), the purpose of the park, and its significant resources. These elements in turn are the foundation for park visions and management objectives. Collectively, these pieces provide the context and philosophical direction for the General Management Plan.

The most pressing issue in the park as stated above is the impact created by the annual rush of five million visitors and the cars on the few developed areas along the canyon rims. The roads and facilities in developed areas of the park were never designed to handle this volume. The result has been the gradual degradation of the experience of visitors and unacceptable impacts on the natural and cultural resources of the region.

The GC Skywalk and the Development Debate

The GC Skywalk opened to the public on March 28. What is the aim of this modern day marvel? One of the members of the Hualapai American tribe, states that one of the purposes was to create economic opportunities for tribal members. Some others disagree. They claim that this is holy ground and add that most of the elders disapprove of this. “But the council members approved the skywalk before the community voted on it. It was hidden (from us),” claims one member. (Reynolds, 2007).

The GC skywalk is reportedly part of a plan for the development of 9,000-acre area known as Grand Canyon West that will open up a 100-mile stretch of countryside along the canyon’s South Rim. (Cart, 2007).  Tribal officials say the development of the area, which will eventually include hotels, restaurants and a golf course, is possibly the best way to address the social problems faced by the small reservation, where 2,000 residents struggle with a 50 per cent unemployment rate and widespread alcoholism and poverty. But many people still regard the development and especially the Skywalk as tantamount to defacing a national treasure.

Robert Arnberger, a former superintendent of GCNP who was born near the Canyon’s South Rim has indicated that there is no apparent conflict between claims made often by the tribe that they are the best caregiver and steward of the Grand Canyon and the heavy use and economy by their people as the best approach to conservation as well as survival. It is apparent that that while the tribal claim that the Grand Canyon is theirs to do with however they please may be right under the law, they are drawn more by the lure of money than the obligation to manage the Grand Canyon for its cultural and historic values.

The Hualapai tribe tried, unsuccessfully, for years to attract more tourists to their reservation. The tribe levies a charge for weddings on the Canyon rim and other events. They even tried their hand at casino gambling, but that too failed. Only after this that the tribe decided to launch the skywalk plan at the rim of the GC. The Skywalk should boost tourism at a more modest development already in place: a smattering of sites 120 miles east of Las Vegas offering experiences that can’t be found at the park, including an Old West Main Street and cowboy show, an Indian village, horseback riding, wagon rides and Humvee tours.

The tribe also operates airplane and helicopter tours to fly visitors into the canyon on low-level routes, which are forbidden at the national park. After landing beside the river, visitors can embark on guided pontoon boat and raft rides — day tours not offered in the park. The GCNP’s Colorado River management plan, finalized in December 2006 allows the tribe to take 600 passengers on motorized pontoon boats each day. This capacity can of course be enhanced and ways to exploit the same without damaging the environment need to be explored. This will be better for the tribal as well as expose others to the joys of raft rides in the GCNP.

No one doubts the importance of tourism to the reservation. It accounts for 70 per cent of the Hualapai Tribal Council’s budget. Visits to the area have stagnated at 200,000 people annually – a fraction of the five million who flock to the government-owned south rim of the Grand Canyon. The Hualapai believe they could finally mine real treasure from the vast swath of the Grand Canyon they control with the skywalk. It is in fact just the most spectacular piece of a $45 million development plan on the reservation. Blueprints also call for a 6,000-square-foot visitors center, a vertical tram that will whisk people from the rim to the canyon floor, and more lodging. So there are strong grounds to believe that building visiting homes may not be that bad an idea for the Grand Canyon. Using innovative means such as the Sky Walk is an even better option. For the Hualapai Tribal cannot be ignored any more and should be brought at par with other Americans in enjoying the fruits of the economic might and entrepreneurial spirit.


The preservation of parks vis a vis their economic use has been the subject of debate over the years. Thus the discussion on the Grand Canyon is not new. Many people have been suggesting issues which can be covered for preservation of the sanctity of the parks in general. (The Parks for People, Nd). Some of the time worn suggestions which are practical and which may not stop economic growth are limiting the growth of autos in parks. This is a common suggestion as it is felt that automobiles are doubly damaging to the environment, polluting it as well as to the roads and infrastructure. But then those who give this argument seldom remember that people will come in automobiles and hence this mode is the preferred one, despite the trains criss crossing the American landscape including the Grand Canyon. One option could possibly be electric vehicles which are less polluting, cannot be driven at break neck speed and thus will be less damaging. Another similar option is declaring a ban on road building or on wheeled campers. (The Parks for People, Nd). These motor homes are the most environmentally damaging. These can be replaced by constructing holiday homes, which will provide the necessary infra structure for stay as well as income to those who are charged with running the same. These should be placed on the other periphery and also in locations which are not geologically damaging to the environment. These solutions need to be applied in context to the Grand Canyon.

So what can be done to sustain the tourism potential of this great national heritage site and yet conserve its natural beauty? One method may be to engage in eco-tourism or responsible tourism. Ecotourism can be defined as nature-based tourist experiences, whereby visitors travel to the area for the sole purpose of appreciating their natural beauty. What this means is that this type of tourism, respects local culture, optimizes benefits to local people, minimizes environmental impacts and maximizes visitor satisfaction. There is a lot asked for here, but still it can be attempted.

Sustainable ecotourism is one in which the aim is to; promote conservation of the natural ecosystems and to support local economies. The skywalk controversy in the GC is about promoting local economies, but the future means that there will be less conservation and more tourism. Ecotourism in, the Grand Canyon can be Passive, such as viewing the canyon. Active, such as rafting down the Colorado River. And Exploitive, such as staying in the lodge on the rim of the canyon. (Lowman, Nd).

While it is realized that volumes of people coming to the Park can cause a problem, they can also be educated to learn about the fragility of the environment they are seeing. Many of the visitors who come to wonder at “the Big Ditch” are also learning about the challenges facing it. The Park’s rangers are addressing environmental and Park issues in the daily free ranger programs. Visitors learn about the range of environmental issues, which they may not have thought impinged on their lives, including pressure on natural resources, disruption of wildlife, and the speed of species extinction. One estimate is that global species extinction rates are running at 25,000 times normal rates, and visitors at the GCNP can actually see before their eyes, how endemic fish species have been affected by man’s activities.

As David Edwards (1997) argues correctly, visitors can learn on the geology walk that the earth is 4,500 million years old, but compressed into a one-year time scale, the Canyon formed about lunch time on December 31, and the industrial society which affects it came into being two seconds before the end of the year. The GCNP highlights the rapid impact that the first species on Earth that can change its environment has had on the planet.

Visitors who think that the GC is just an awesome hole in the ground are having the opportunity to learn that, huge though it is, it is very much affected by man and his ways. Carefully presented programs educate them without realizing they’re being educated and turn them into “friends” of the Park and ensures they will take an interest when they hear of threats to it. There is talk of Congress reducing the Park Service budget by 10%. This would mean the end of interpretive programs for visitors. They would come, look, photograph and return home having learnt little of why it is so special, but more importantly what it can teach us about the interconnectedness of man and natural systems.  These programs have a tremendous benefit for all and will bring men closer to nature in the years ahead. This is particularly significant in the case of urbanized environment in which most Americans find them selves. As we move away from nature, it is guided tours like these that will ensure that the urbanite stays rooted to the earth. In this process if the locals can make some money, then be it, all the more better for monetizing environment.

As David Edwards (1997) says, “It is not enough to admire scenery; one has to be able to learn from it. Because with understanding and appreciation comes concern.” And the lesson of the story? It is that anywhere in the world, beauty alone is not enough; it is essential to explain that beauty and draw out the lessons it shows us. Special ness can be eroded, if no one realizes it is special. Environmental education becomes an essential aid to survival. No wonder then that every country needs a Grand Canyon. This is the lesson to be learnt by all of us. (Edwards, 1997). Natural historians too seem to agree with this premise. As Schmidt (1993) has indicated, the understanding of nature can best be derived from a visit to the Grand Canyon. To what extent that this is not turned into an exploitative tour is what we need to put our minds to.


The best way to appreciate the Grand Canyon is to walk. The natural geologist too feels that there is no better way than this to enjoy the beauty of nature. (Schmidt, 1993). Why then the encumbrances that we want to impose on natures bounty. But natural beauty is not the preserve of the geologist. Every human would like to partake of this beauty. The need is thus there to provide them the wherewithal as well as the resources for such a journey. Herein comes the need for tourism. The economic motivation for the Grand Canyon also comes from the requirement for supporting the masses that live on its periphery. Sustainable tourism is the way ahead and the conservationist as well as the economists has to ultimately understand the needs and meet midway to accept that each is important to the other. The Grand Canyon may perhaps survive many thousand years, put for mankind to enjoy its gigantic beauty; a balanced approach seems to be the way ahead.


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