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How Grand Canyon wants to manage the backcountry

Posted at 4:48 AM, Dec 01, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-01 06:48:50-05
Millions of people visit the Grand Canyon each year, taking in the sweeping views from developed areas along the rim, grabbing a bite to eat and hopping on a shuttle bus to other outlooks. Far fewer people venture into the 1.1 million acres that make up the backcountry.
 
Park officials are trying to get a better handle on how many people head into the canyon and to the most primitive areas with recent proposals to manage the backcountry. They say the trails are becoming too congested and hikers complain of the noise, trash dumped along the routes and long lines for toilets.
 
The park also wants to monitor relatively new activities like rim-to-rim excursions, canyoneering, climbing and short rafting trips on the Colorado River to get backpackers to the other side.
 
The proposals aim to reduce conflicts among outdoor groups seeking the solitude of the backcountry and to ensure the park's resources are protected. Between 30,000 and 35,000 people a year spend the night in the backcountry, according to park officials.
 
Here's a look at some of the details of the management proposal:
 
WHAT IS THE BACKCOUNTRY?
 
Anything below the rim of the Grand Canyon is considered the backcountry. Much of it has been managed as a wilderness area since 1980, which means motorized travel, power drilling to place bolts into rocks and helicopters largely are prohibited. The backcountry is divided into four zones that range from having developed campsites and lodging, water faucets and well-maintained trails to absolutely no amenities and only natural water sources. Overnight stays in the inner canyon require a backcountry permit.
 
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 rugged terrain. 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 groups if needed. The proposals outline a way to monitor the activities.
 
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 farther below 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 90 days 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 .