Wednesday, October 26, 2011

On the Edge IV: The 1990's, From the Inside

In "On the Edge III: The 1990's" (12 Sep 2011), I presented maps from the 1995 General Master Plan (GMP) for GCNP showing several alternative levels of development for Mather Point. I have very little personal documentation or archival material for that period, one in which I was distracted from Grand Canyon affairs. On the other hand, that period is so recent that I thought it might be worthwhile to see which participants might be willing to talk about the goals of the 1990's and what prevented them from being realized. 

I did recall having a talk, maybe in 2000, with Brad Traver, whom I remembered as the chief operational officer for the GMP's ambitions, particularly with respect to the vexed matter of visitor transportation. "Vexed" of course because of the difficulties caused by over 60 years of cultivating the private automobile as the primary mode for 2, 3, 4 & up million visitors each year to come to and get around in Grand Canyon National Park. "Vexed" for me because in the 1970's, during an earlier round of transportation planning for the Park, I tried hard to convince the planners that cars and the "Spanish experience" did not mix, while they remained tied to the idea that cars did and would rule. 
When I speak of the Spanish experience, I am thinking primarily of those -- the great majority of visitors -- who come for a day or other short period, and are coming for the first (and maybe only) time to the Canyon. I think that they should not have to battle traffic or commercial and other distractions, much less elbow through crowds, in order to get situated near the rim, to which they then should be able to walk, along a natural path, through the pinyon-juniper, to that defining moment of the first look.*

Brad Traver is now Superintendent of the (newly expanded) Petrified Forest National Park, the northern section of which constitutes the Painted Desert Wilderness, one of my favorite places for a little hike or weekend backpack -- it is not large, and the lack of potable water means we must carry our own. When I found that Brad was willing to talk me through the events of the 1990's, it was a doubled benefit that I could spend the morning walking in the Painted Desert. Our hour-and-a-half conversation that afternoon provided me with a story whose arc is too familiar in Grand Canyon affairs: Great dreams, goals, and plans that find support, are pushed toward fruition, even past substantial obstacles, achieving in the end however at best only partial realization due to systemic resistances -- bureaucratic, commercial, political, even personal. If this were my story, I might call it "Hijacking The Train", but instead I will do my best here to present what Brad told me. He has his own, complete, book-length version; I hope it becomes available. The Park Service and what it administers are too crucial to America for there to be so few in-depth studies.

Traver came to GCNP in 1988 as the Park Engineer when Richard Marks was Superintendent. There were then four (incl Acting) Superintendents in 5½ years, when Robert Arnberger came in 1994, to stay until 2000. Because I have been making these entries about Mather Point backwards, I have yet to deal with the 1970's, when a San Francisco planning firm called ROMA did much detailed work, supposedly prefatory to a Master Plan implementation that would have upgraded much of the South Rim facilities. The 1980's, however, were a hard time for big Park plans, so it was not until the early 1990's when discussions were renewed among Park staff about updating the ROMA work. Superintendent R. Chandler (1991-3) launched the effort to produce a General Management Plan. Mather Point was one focus of the discussions, as it had been for ROMA, which saw it as a center of visitor activity on the canyon rim. Traver remembers that this idea of more intensive development on the rim was rejected. 

Then vital pro-Canyon personnel changes took place. Bruce Babbitt, long a personal aficionado and user of the Canyon, became Secretary of the Interior in 1993, and in mid-1994, Arnberger became Sup't. The latter was a strong administrator; and if your project was favored, much would be accomplished. (There is more about him in my Hijacking A River.) In a dramatic little episode, Babbitt called Arnberger on a Saturday, and told him he wanted to talk with him in Washington immediately about Park upgrading. He took Traver, and they met with the Secretary, who told them he wanted a plan done to make the Park work better for the visitor. Politically astute, Babbitt told them it must be done while he was in office. He would be the encourager, but not the manager; that was up to the Park staff. He offered one idea, that had been discussed before, to build a by-pass road (which would have to use Kaibab Forest land, too) on the East Rim from Tusayan to Desert View to get through-traffic off the Park road. Whatever the merits of this project, the big needs had to do with the bulk of visitors, how to get them out of their cars (and where to park the beasts), and how to improve their often short-time experience. The GMP was to be done at speed; it took ten months, and was completed, with an EIS, in August 1995. 

Babbitt showed his interest by calling Arnberger, and visiting 3-4 times a year. And, it showed by of the lack of involvement, which can often be a cause of major slow-down, of the Regional office (GCNP started out under San Francisco, then went under Denver); as well the Washington office played little role. The Park's implementation team had all of three members, with Traver as its head, working with Arnberger. Streamlining was the goal here, and seems to have been achieved. I dont know about overwork. 

The major issue of the location for parking was closely examined: it could be inside the Park;  the Secretary liked the idea of it being under Park control. However, there is no disturbed land at the appropriate location, so that alternative was never written up. The area south of Tusayan, at the airport, was considered since it would coincide with plans the railroad operators were promoting to run a spur off their line to serve the airport  The chosen site, however, was in Tusayan,  on the forest north of Imax. This area had the merit, it seems to me, of dumping the load of cars in what was already an industrial tourism site. 

The Mather train station and orientation center was planned to be the major visitor target, with fuller interpretation and education being carried out in that fine old Village building that used to be the power plant. The conception started with visitors leaving their car in Tusayan, taking mass transit to the Mather station for orientation and a walk to the rim, then back on the transit and over to Maswik & the Village, finally returning to Tusayan if they were not staying. The train transit system was thus a Y, one horn at Mather station, the other at the Village. Any private cars having overnight reservations could go to parking near their destination, using a more southerly route.

The transit unit would come to the north side of the Mather station, where the visitor would see signs leading to the Canyon rim, along pedestrian approaches. These would, appealingly and because of the downward slope from the rim (well, all in line with the Kaibab's slant to the south), be slightly uphill so that the Canyon would not be fully revealed until the rim was reached -- that "my jaw dropped a mile" sensation. The walk from transit to rim would be about 5 minutes, although I found in my visit there in mid-October that I, along with lots of others, dawdled along, checking things out and quite slowly approaching the edge.

The planning team was to have until 1997 to figure out all the aspects of the transit system, and they came up with three likely alternatives; buses run on battery power (checked out, but not a serious contender), buses using fuel cells, or a light rail train run on diesel. Some possibilities were ruled out since they would require major power lines. The aim was to have a demonstration for Secretary Babbitt in January 1997. Arnberger himself favored rail, since he thought people would more readily get on it, trains having cachet buses never will. This was the choice by the Secretary, and he emphasized that the transit system had to be on an irreversible path by 2000, when he would be leaving.

Of course, money had to be found; individual Parks did not control their budgets, and a project like this was major in any sense. Then, as the organizational structure was being put together in 1997-8, the Park System concession law was re-vamped, causing a need for the lawyers to figure out a new set of regulations for letting contracts, including for such projects as this Park rail system, one of the first of its kind, and one of the first under the new concession law. The end result was four binders of material for potential concessionaires to deal with. All would-be bidders had to be pre-qualified; five companies -- e.g., Bombardier, Raytheon -- made it. 

Another slow-down complication appeared when Congress ordered the Federal Transit Administration to report on the Park's transit plan, requiring that it include non-rail transit options. On top of that, Representative John Shadegg (from Phoenix) asked the state to report on the Park plans. But we need to pause here, and check out these actors in Congress, remembering that congressional politics is: 1: $$$$; and 2: "Its all local, my friend". Recall, also, that the Republicans took over Congress in 1995. 

One important Representative was Ralph Regula from Ohio. I first dealt with him in 1973-4 when he was on the Interior Committee. I kept hoping he might support positive changes to the Park during the Enlargement legislation struggle. He did not. And 25 years later, a power on the Appropriations Committee (including as chairman of the Interior Subcommittee), he was still no help. (He brought fuel cell technology money to Ohio; and had a wide-ranging concern for energy uses and who made money from them. Diesel trains? I wonder.) When I contacted his office in 2000, I was told the Park Service could not handle such a large project. Sometimes the problem with politics being local is that it makes the minds small.

Then there was Senator Jon Kyl. As anyone who has read Hijacking A River knows, Kyl  (along with his father) was one of the motorboaters' major allies, once their attorney. Nuf said on the possibility of his helping the Park. Bob Stump represented the district, although that hardly mattered; nor did he. Shadegg, also out on the right, was on a House subcommittee concerned with energy matters. There was no Raul Grijalva, much less a Mo Udall, to support Secretary Babbitt in leading an environmental, pro-Park effort. In short, this was not a great period for finding Grand Canyon advocates in Congress.

If these concerned congressional watch-dogs (or were they attack pups?) were hoping for the outside studies to do the dirty to the Park plan, they must have been disappointed. The FTA report included a "bus rapid transit" option it preferred (as no doubt did Regula), but was still favorable for rail as a reasonable alternative. The state report was also favorable. However,  the Park planners' intimate involvement in helping pull the reports together could only absorb crucial time in the 1997-9 period. Perhaps that was their only purpose--slow down the process. 

So it was that work on the contract for the rail system was still going on in 2000, and had only reached the stage of providing a demonstration for the congressional Gang of Three. That event, Traver recalls, took place on 30 November, right during the 2000 election count-off period. Therefore, all knew there would not only not be Bruce Babbitt in office, but quite possibly not even a Democratic administration. Everyone was polite, as at a wake, but with only Republican skeptics involved, the result was not in doubt. The Park was allowed to do a quick study that Congress could ignore. 

Meanwhile, however, the train station -- or visitor center as it now is -- had been built, since Arnberger had somehow convinced Regula that it was needed and would be useful even without the train. It was dedicated at the end of 2000 as the Superintendent went to a new job. 
Traver too did not stay, leaving two years later. It had become clear that J. Alston, the new sup't, was letting the project sit, and that cars would likely still rule, with new parking lots surrounding the train station, oops, strike that, visitor center -- possibly a form of irony. Steve Martin took over from Alston, and though as a young GCNP river ranger had better instincts, he used entrance fee funds to stamp the 1950's firmly on the revamped Mather Point Complex. 

Which is where I went next, spending a couple of hours on the ground at the Complex the day after meeting with Traver. I will write about that next time. For now, I want to thank Brad, first, for being so generous with his time and his recollections of another Grand Canyon frustration. And more important, for trying with such determination to bring about what would have been a better future for the Grand Canyon visitor by using new technology to reach back way into the past to re-create a more natural First View. 

*Any sensitive, sensible, law-abiding planner will of course put out maximum effort to approximate the Spanish experience for those not able to walk a path through the trees.


  1. Excellent Blog post Jeff! It's amazing Brad was able to keep his sanity in a Park where management really happens in congress at the behest of special interest. Thanks for posting this!

  2. Yes, he was a victim -- as are the visitors -- of a political process full of slow-down opportunities as has occurred several times in Canyon history-- Sometimes to the Canyon's benefit (the dams) and sometimes not (motorized opposition to a Grand Canyon Wilderness).