Saturday, September 26, 2009

What was I thinking?

This is hard work. The temptations to noodle away my time in enjoyable, satisfying activities are multiple. Yet there seems an opposite, offsetting pull to do this thing, to gather and play with all the Grand Canyon baubles I have collected. So I thought it might help to think again about what it is all about; my purpose.

Imagine this map: Property owners of the Grand Canyon. Understanding it and the on-going narrative of its history will provide the foundation for understanding who gets to participate how in decision-making on the futures we humans will try to create for the world-known landform, that environmental icon we call the Grand Canyon.*

Tracking along the Colorado River down from its junction with the Paria River near Lees Ferry, the left side, on the east, down to the Little Colorado, the owners are those most aggressive people, the Navajo, the Dine’. 

Had we come upstream from the Canyon’s end at the Grand Wash Cliffs, 277 miles from the Paria junction, the land to the south is owned by the Hualapai (Nation?) between miles 273 and 165.

Ownership was significantly altered in two locations by the 1976 Grand Canyon National Park Enlargement (sic) Act. First, the Havasupai, almost a century after having been granted an irrationally inadequate reservation, legislatively obtained ownership of a more appropriate 190 Kac south of and back from the Colorado around the Canyon's center, much of the land above the rim. Further, the Havasupai gained the right to use for traditional purposes the 100 Kac between the river and the enlarged reservation. Ownership of this piece for Havasupai use, however, remained with the fourth major Canyon landowner –and supreme avatar of the legal framework in which all land decisions are made in the United States--, all the American people, organized in their federal government, in this case acting on the ground through National Park Service administration (NPS) of the Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP). 

Second, before the enactment of the 1976 Act, the Colorado River was subject to an jurisdictional patchwork, a jumble of ambiguous or indifferent or out-dated or ill-equipped legal definitions. In order to bring about unified administration of the river, the Act placed ownership of and jurisdiction over the entire water surface of the river, from the Paria to the Grand Wash Cliffs, in the hands of all the American people, acting ultimately again through the GCNP administration. Given that the river fluctuates, naturally or due to dam operations, and the water surface thus changes size, this jurisdiction may at first seem like one ambiguity replacing another. Actually, since no land under or influenced by the river flow changed hands, the new boundary of GCNP including the entire river surface is well-defined. If one is on the water, swimming or boating, one is under the jurisdiction of NPS. If one is on land along the Hualapai stretch, --even right next to the river or where the river had been 6 hours before, one is under the jurisdiction of the Hualapai. The 1976 Act changes nothing about the land, riverbeds or high-water lines or other lawyerly matters. It simply says GCNP has jurisdiction over the river surface, however wide or narrow it may be at any moment.

The Navajo, the Hualapai, the Havasupai, three of the four major landowners, are all on the the left side of the Colorado, east and south. The fourth sharer of this most-visited side is of course all the American people, acting through Congress and the executive branch in its sovereign (and power-based) capacity to establish and impose a legal and political system within which decisions about land and its uses are taken. When the Navajo Reservation expanded to the west, when the Havasupai petitioned Congress to restore its land base, when the Hualapai went to the Supreme Court to secure undisputed title to its million-acre reservation, all were acting successfully within the American system, as must NPS when it promulgates a plan to manage river traffic or alter patterns of use at Grand Canyon Village viewpoints.**

As must we all, including the other claimants desiring to influence the Canyon’s future: advocates for the Canyon’s integrity urging full Wilderness status for the wild Canyon; exploiters who would have built dams and hydroelectric works; prospectors and miners; implementers of industrialized mass tourist facilities; the Hopi and Paiute people, though with no large Canyon land base, maintain intense interest in the Canyon’s management. And so forth; we will meet these and others as we review the Canyon’s political narratives and try to describe and understand what underlies the wide variety of futures offered for all or parts of the Grand Canyon.

For now, think again about the map, and the lands from the river north & west out onto the plateaus –the Kaibab, Kanab, Uinkarets, Shivwits--  that in their extent and geological variety raise the Canyon to its unique configuration. Almost all these lands, included within what is familiarly called the Arizona Strip (the Strip) are public lands, lands of the American people, administered by federal agencies such as NPS, the US Forest Service (USFS), and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Sad but true, the theory of a single owner is overridden by the facts of differing agency mandates and turf differences. Further, interested parties are as numerous and various and clamorous as on the south side, so the question of shaping the Canyon’s futures is as complicated here. 

The Strip is characterized by important similarities. Much of it, hinterland to the Canyon’s north side, is genuinely wild and where not, back country of high quality. Most roads are unpaved, the spaces are vast, facilities are rare to non-existent. There is some private land, less than there used to be, and a few residents, temporary and otherwise. Tipping my hand, I see the Canyon’s North Side as a real, active site for the institutions of cooperation, involving all public and private agencies and claimants, to work. Not to result in just a single future, but a range of compatible futures organized and activated by the variety of players. But we shall see; sometimes people can talk the talk, while walking in different directions.

Yet, tipping over some more, the hopes aroused by the idea of what good cooperation on the south side could mean for the Canyon’s futures make me, even as an old man, optimistic that with time a variety of futures, operating in beneficially interlocking ways, can be a goal sought by all Canyon landowners & interested people, a goal defined by seeking to enhance the Grand Canyon as an icon of humans enlarging hope for our own, our human, environment.
 *Not “Grand Canyon” or “Grand Canyon of the Colorado” or any other variation; this place is properly and above all, “the Grand Canyon”, no need to emphasize “the”. I will often write “the Canyon”.

**it is characteristic of our western land history that it often seems to be what some call Anglos or Europeans or whites who manipulate this system only for their own purposes. My own bent is to, not entirely as a joke, see “us” as another tribe, the whitefolk -- late-comers and still coming: the intruders, the conquerors; immigrants & children of immigrants-- like all humans in the Americans. The American political/legal system was brought and insisted upon by whitefolk, even as it has been substantially changed by so many different actors. And if I suggest “we” are a tribe, it is one split into so many sub-tribes, many opponents of each other, that it is really only acceptance (and even that not always so) of the American system that provides common ground. And if the Hualapai, Havasupai, and Navajo can benefit under its umbrella after their travails, that should be a sign that anyone can.


  1. The Hualapai will be happy to hear that the land bellow the high water mark is theirs. I sure don't want to be in the river party that becomes the test case for this. And, I wonder about the history of the Diamond Creek Road. Was it always a toll road, with only recent exorbitant fees?

  2. Well, I would be glad to be up front in that party.
    There have been a fair number of mixed signals about the boundary as set by the 1975 "Enlargement" Act. Goldwater intended one thing in early 1973, and his anti-Park staff member always insisted G intended something else. It would have been better had there been more explicit statements, but we always thought it was fairly clear Congress meant, and the law says: The water surface is under GCNP jurisdiction (for better and worse).
    The Hualapai, since the early 1950's, claimed to the middle of the river.
    The GCNP Superintendent after 1975 claimed to the high water mark.
    Lots of feed for lawyers.
    I never could figure why NPS wanted to the hwm. Would they fence it? Patrol it? Put Hualapai peeing in the river in the federal pen?
    Nope, the only thing that makes sense is to let NPS rule the waves, and the Hualapai try to cash in on the land. (That way the peeing Hualapai is free on his land, and NPS gets the stream.)
    And charging a fee to come out at Diamond is an example of a benign cash cow for the H -- as compared to the motorized circus they lease out to the Las Vegas operators. As to how long they have imposed that fee, Im not sure if it was as early as the 1960's. And with the road being built at Pearce at the real end of the Grand Canyon, and the river running all through it, why pay the fee in the future?