The Canyon's Visitors: A Problem for the South Rim; no, Grand Canyon Village; no, Mather Point…
At the time, the 1970's, we have reached in this hopping-about narrative (last entries in Oct 2011), 90% of Canyon visitors clocked in through the two entrances to the South Rim. Seemingly, they all got off on Mather Point at some point in their visit. The questions raised about handling this human flood consumed NPS attention. When Mission 66 was conceived of in the 1950's, to upgrade facilities throughout the Park System, the Mather Point overlook was a solution. Twenty years later, in the 70's, and throughout the decades since, it has been the focus for NPS of the problem.
Here is one of those charts of numbers that seem designed to raise questions (updated to 1982):
For instance, the more detailed reports I have from the time show that most of the remaining 10% came to the North Rim entrance. In 1974, ~260k people arrived there, 13%. The next year, this shot up to 420k people, 15% of a big jump for the whole Park. It stayed that way through 1978: 477k people and 16%. Something happened then, for 1979 saw 241k people, 11%, and the number stayed about the same, with 216k visitors into 1982, not quite 9%. Even today, the North Rim's high 200 thousands are about 7% of the total; the north does not, therefore, stir up the same NPS anxiety as do the more visible crowds at Mather and the Village.
Were the glory years of 1975-8 -- a peak of 3 million reached in 1976 -- reverberations from our Bicentennial? That number was not reached again for 10 years. Even today, it bounces around, between 4 and 4½ million.* Whatever the cause, the higher numbers were the ones people were using when the discussion I am going to relate was going on.
My starting date of 1972 is somewhat arbitrary. NPS master planning was a fluctuating but always present activity, with contributions over the years from Park staff, its Region (which changed from the Southwest at Santa Fe to the West at San Francisco), and other parts of NPS, like the Denver Service Center. A draft Master Plan for GCNP had been released in 1971. Meetings were held in May, but discussion between the Park and the public had been on-going from the late 1960's, tied into the very hot topics of river management, Wilderness designation, and extension of the Park boundaries. A personnel change was the arrival of Superintendent Merle Stitt in late summer 1972.
It would have been no surprise, then, if a "development concept" document on Grand Canyon Village had been low on the to-do list. According to its Foreword, dated May 1972 (other dates in the document indicate it went on being prepared and printed through 1973 into 1974), planners had been working over a couple of years on plans for the Village to deal with "pressing minor problems". However, these "expedient solutions" were not responding to a basic recommendation of the existing Master Plan, namely that the private car should be removed from the village, replaced by public transport. "We were at the dawn of another era in the physical development…quite as significant as Mission 66 or the early automobile era".
Long-range direction was needed to effect this next major shift in the organization of the Village. Here is their map of how it had developed:
Looking back, the report says the first decade of the twentieth century offered "elegant accommodations for a leisurely elite" of railroad travelers.(p.5) The Park, the middle class, and the automobile all gathered force through the 1920's. The report labels the buildings put up then -- the powerhouse, laundry, Babbitt's store, park headquarters, etc. -- "obsolete".(p.6) Auto visitors' preferences set precedents for camping and cabins. This was intensified by the "enormously burgeoning" middle class with their time and proliferating equipment. Mission 66 was "an attempt to meet the needs of the visitor as the visitor dictated". (p.7) Now, diminishing returns had led to a new era that will provide "more meaningful experiences for the visitor while maintaining the environmental integrity of the park". Well, its Organic Act says NPS is to conserve the natural objects while providing for the visitor insofar as the natural objects are maintained. Surely, the report writer, Merrick Smith, had his heart in the right place.
Anyway, Smith's review indicates that NPS catering to the changing life-style demands of the visitor was acceptable with small numbers, but with millions coming, "it will be necessary to redesign the park to handle more people with less impact on the environment".(p.7) Eliminating automobile-based, sprawl-type development will increase the quality of the visitor experience and allow for more efficient park land use.
This seems like a good point to pause and meditate on what has, in fact, been done (see my entries of 26 & 27 Oct 2011). Would that park planner of 1972 nod in overall satisfaction? The private car was not removed from the park (to Tusayan, say), but after 40 years of start and stop work, is the visitor experience improved, land use more efficient, the environment less impacted?
Smith includes these goals (p.11): Structures "grouped for human scale", "open spaces … more intimate areas for pedestrian circulation and social interaction" (rather than, he hopes, "vast wastelands for automobile access and storage"). To get there, "major restructuring of the present village will be required". This is an arguable point, but as I see it, the major restructuring has been done in the Mather Point area, not the main village, the focus of debate in the 1970's, as we shall see.
He re-stated the master plan goals: 1. Preserve the Canyon . He added "in as natural a state as possible", which opens the door for mischief.
2. Provide a high quality experience for visitors, where they could feel the Canyon's significance. We argued such an experience happened by approaching the rim on foot in a natural setting.
3. Facilitate optimum visitor use subject to ecology, safety, and quality.
Problems are thick: facilities are inadequate for food, lodging, camping, interpretation, roads and parking. What exists may be decayed or obsolete, and was designed for the car, use of which is fast becoming outmoded. (p.15) This is true for Mission 66 upgrades, not yet complete, that are unsuited for the future--too far from the rim and lacking in human scale and interest. Uses conflict in many areas. Interestingly, he goes hard after the railroad "clutter, without distinction, charm, or sense of place",(p.16) but on the existing visitor center has only this to say: "there is an urgent need for a visitor reception/orientation facility where the arriving visitor, who now wanders aimlessly around the village, can get information and plan". So much for the Mission 66 centerpiece. However, there is to be no numerical limit of day visitors, only a geographic boundary and concern about environmental impacts.
The resident community is a major element in Village design, and, he notes (p.17-8), "dependent on an enlightened paternalism on the part of both concessioner and Government". "Few distractions or outlets are available for the residents, as they are surrounded by a monotonous and relatively hostile natural environment", with "relative isolation from urban services -- 60 miles to Williams".
The greatest problem, however, is transport; the car must be eliminated from the Village, and the Park will work gradually into mass transit. It must be short and carry heavy volumes. Thus the visitor should be required to approach the rim as close as is environmentally acceptable. A reception facility to handle visitors in volume will provide parking, services, trip planning and access to the Park transit. Yavapai Point is key, and reception should be close to it. The report presents a idealized plan as a guide. Here is the map for the east half of the Village:
What is striking about this map/diagram is how uninvolved Mather Point is in the concept. Reception (olive green square) is oriented west to visitor services (smaller light brown area) and north to Yavapai Point for interpretation. The dashed access for day visits, any parking, and actual reception buildings are all well back from the rim, and quite far from Mather and Yavapai Points, with direct mass transit only to the latter. The concept was indeed radical, and would have necessitated conversion to a day use focus of areas used for trailers, camping, and motels.
The next major re-conceptualization by NPS took place in the 1990's; I wrote about it in a 12 Sep 2011 entry. The comparison between 1972 ideas and those of twenty years later is, ah, interesting.
The document projected a work plan through three stages to the year 2000. The mass transit would steadily expand, and the reception facility would take over the trailer village. Services for the day visitor would be in the then-new business center, accessed by mass transit. In the final stage (p.30), cars would be separated from people, who would circulate using mass transit or bicycle, or on foot. Transit would eventually be converted to an automated system. A town center would develop. Yavapai would be the interpretive center, with Mather a subsidiary oriented toward the East Rim drive. That road could be turned over to mass transit if a new highway were built south of the Park. As Park and concessionaire facilities were amortized or became obsolete, they could be relocated, allowing space to be left open. The "rim experience corridor" (marked by red vertical lines on the maps above and below) would be open to public use, with all overnight accommodations south of the old railroad tracks. Thus overnight visitor use would be consolidated back from the rim in the Village, while the day visitor would drive in to a reception area structured to enhance a human-scale Canyon experience, one made physically easy by the mass transit. As the map of stage III makes clear, development for human use would be concentrated, rather than spread further along the rim, which was one of the major points in the debate about to start.
The plan study team --there were four including Superintendent Lovegren-- had thus set forth a path that would indeed have achieved what we, advocates for the Canyon, thought were environmentally sound changes that, at the same time, would bring visitors to a more effective "first look". It was an effort that would have enhanced the overnight experience, while also keeping all visitors within the Park environs. But, as we shall see, there would be major new participants in the process arriving, and the "gathering-in" of development that the Concept document set forth would be lost.
*For more recent years, after 1990, I obtained the numbers from the NPS statistical website at http://www.nature.nps.gov/stats/park.cfm?parkid=473 . The yearly total chart on that site shows consistently fewer visitors than the 1973 report, so NPS must have changed its counting methods.