Thursday, March 1, 2012

On the Edge XI: Collapse, and Reflections

The quiet that descended after the Advisory Committee meeting of June 1976 and the termination of ROMA's contract lasted, for me, until 1981.  True, in June 1979, the Park announced that the concessioner was to build employee housing and visitor units as replacements, all in accord with the Development Concept, the final EIS of which had been released in 1976. There was chat, again, in 1978 about reviving some train service. Also, there had been a change in superintendents, though the Regional Director remained. And I, pushed in large part by the defeats in wilderness establishment and river management confirmed by the in-coming Reagan-Watt administration, was moving toward disengagement, as I recounted in Hijacking A River. As if in confirmation, in July 1981, anti-environmentalist Interior Secretary Watt announced a new policy aimed at ever-more private ownership of Park concessions, facilities, and maybe even of the Parks themselves. 

So it was as if to start singing a swan song that I wrote Regional Director Chapman in January 1981 about "a number of decisions" on the reception center and parking garage at the South Rim. Since no one had kept me or anyone else informed, I asked for a current status report, a chronology of actions, and copies of any research studies and decision documents. They were "pleased to have this opportunity" to respond, although "there is not now and never has been a proposal for a parking garage on the south rim". Probably, lack of communication was due to the Advisory Committee being dissolved.

Anyway, the letter continued, the study to develop reception/parking alternatives had been carried out by the Denver Service Center after the June 1976 meeting; a copy was enclosed. As well, a questionnaire for visitors provided useful information. The study was reviewed in February 1978 by Park, region, and DSC staff. Mather Point was the preferred choice because it was in a "previously burned area", it would provide "ample parking that could be easily controlled with a minimum of manpower". Use of this site could then be tested more easily than other sites, and if it was unsatisfactory, the site could be "obliterated". We are confident the site will be satisfactory. Construction budgets are now "extremely limited" and used to resolve "life/safety projects". So we see no possiblity of funding the Mather Point project until 1987.

Before I get to the NPS documents (see 2 below), here is my May 1981 reply: I understood why the study results were not publicly distributed: "I find it hard to conceive of a more biased, less honest document. Allow me to be blunt: Any idea of using Mather Point or any other rim location is a bad idea. No pseudo-study makes it a good idea." If you wish public support for, rather than opposition to, a large expenditure for new facilities, "find a set of planners with 1) competence, 2) honesty, and 3) a respect for the Grand Canyon." I think I was angry. 

I think they didnt worry. Still, Chapman replied by saying that correspondence could not resolve the matter; he was coming to Arizona and would like to meet me and have "a rational discussion of the issue". In any case, nothing has been programmed for 1982-6. I had not seen his letter when we met in July; as it turned out there was no time for discussion. I wrote him in September that since millions of people each year are affected by arrangements at the  South Rim, I had always been interested in master planning as well as the mundane day-to-day decisions that often shape a place even more than the grand plans. So maybe we could meet sometime. 

That was pretty much that. As others of these entries have recounted, it took almost 20 years to get the Mather Point reception center, and another ten to add the parking lots for the cars that now seem destined never to be displaced by that dream of a mass transit system into the Park, an early 1970's dream, I want to emphasize, of the Park Service itself. 

The rest of this post is divided into sections: 1) Some reflections on the 1974-6 debate.
2) a summary of the pro-Mather "study" and other 1978-9 decision documents.
3) My attack back, including a general blast at "commercialization of the Grand Canyon".
4) Some scraps my files contain on the 1983 to late 1990's period, just as a clean-up.

1) Some reflections on the 1974-6 debate

Going through my files, it seems that this was indeed the drama I remembered. It began as NPS and we Canyon advocates shaped and concentrated our different approaches. The pressure built to consider alternatives. The responsiveness of those times showed up in the several meetings, including on-the-ground discussions. I certainly feel that had public participation been more numerous and diverse, there definitely would have been benefit for the debate. The process reached a climax just as the ax fell on ROMA's participation, leaving an out-of-joint situation that must have encouraged NPS to follow its instincts for avoiding any strong response. As with other issues, I regret I made little effort in the 1982-99 years. 

As I re-read the materials here, I see two concepts of how the Park might deal with the huge majority of visitors. First there was the guiding customer-knows-best concept, epitomized by the 1950's picture of Ozzie & Harriet setting out with their two kids in the family car to spend a few summer weeks visiting the national parks. Their desires controlling, they expected to drive up to the feature, snap their photos, and drive off to the next on their list. This was the approach that the Development Concept complained had gone wrong; it put the visitor in charge of the experience, relegating NPS to a road and viewpoint builder. 

In contrast, there is what I think of (now) as the island resort concept, though maybe there is a more American, less invidious, way of putting it. Anyway, in this concept, the visitors are in charge of getting to an interface, e.g., suppose they are bound for an island resort where there is no expectation of using their personal car to "be in charge of the experience". So the vacationers get on a plane and fly to the island's airport. There, at the interface, the resort takes over, providing transport to it and its activities and accommodations. What I like about this analogy is that it uses what everyone thinks of as a special place -- an expensive island resort vacation -- to point out that Parks are even more special places, There should be nothing surprising about setting up an interface somewhat distant from the Park's features and activities; that would protect the features; it would enhance the specialness of the experience. So in the Park-island concept, there would be a more or less distant parking/reception center interface, in which the Park takes over and provides directions, orientation, and choice-points for the visitor, who can order and obtain the optimum personal/family experience within the bounds of the Park-as-special concept. 

That concept is the one I think I was getting at by suggesting using the rail line and the Old Village, and I think the Development Concept planners were aiming that way, too, by pointing at the trailer area. This concept seems to underlie the 1990's plan of leaving cars at Tusayan and using trains to transport people to the Mather reception center. Unfortunately, the recent construction at Mather collapsed the interface down by putting the cars right at, indeed surrounding, the reception center near Mather Point. It looks back toward Ozzie & Harriet, toward where the NPS planners (and ROMA?) went in the mid-1970's, back into the NPS comfort zone of Mission 66 and even further, the pro-automobile developments of the 1920's on.

2) Summary of the pro-Mather "study" and other 1978-9 decision documents.

So why did the "Special Study alternatives for reception center/parking test sites/ evaluation of visitor response to the staging area concept" of February 1978 so upset me? First, I found out about it in January 1981; the document opens with its recommendation, reached on "February 7, 1978". The Study states it came about because the Advisory Committee supported "the need for additional parking" and "availability to mass transit as a means to free the village" from traffic impacts. The Study claimed the basic concepts were:
parking should be "readily accessible from major access roads"; visitors should experience a minimum of delays in getting their initial rim view; reception center should explain options for most effective time utilization. All of these ideas are mis-statements of purpose and emphasis, from the Development Concept all the way through the Advisory Committee discussion, which Committee had, by the way, been dissolved according to the Regional Director.

The Study then presented five alternative ways to conduct studies, and then undercut the entire conception by saying that #4, which involved actual construction beginning at Mather Point, was the NPS preference, and "while the development of parking at Mather Point may be objectionable to some individuals, it provides the most convenient location for visitors and the most cost-effective location for the National Park Service…The team does not believe that further testing of the concept (of parking/reception) is required." Furthermore, the tests could produce negative visitor reactions. Attitude surveys should be conducted to analyze the effectiveness of an implemented plan. (All emphasis by NPS.) The study preparers, none on-the-ground GCNP staff, were planners of various sorts.

The study listed some results from the 1977 attitude survey: 83% liked the idea of a parking area combined with a shuttle. 75% wanted parking within walking distance of the rim. 69% said a parking area "several miles from the village" would be equally acceptable. The conclusions only more firmly convinced the planners that no more studies were needed.

I want to re-emphasize that there was no public notice or review of the decision.

Nor any immediate action, for it was not until early 1979 that the development proposal was approved by Park and Region. Parking and reception facilities were to be built in accordance with the Special Study recommendation. The old burn area down the slope from the rim at Mather Point would be used. The proposal resulted from many public, in-house and planning meetings, with time, money and effort expended to reach a consensus. All this effort will be wasted if nothing is done. At the same time, a new road would be built to serve as the main visitor access to the Business Center and Park headquarters, to get cars out of the village. 

3) My attack back.

Calling it "a parking garage on now-natural land at the rim", I called it a destructive project of the sort favored by the new Interior Secretary, James Watt, a notorious anti-Park, anti-Wilderness, pro-development lawyer from Denver. 

I took the survey results to mean that over 70% of current visitors were not bothered by traffic; half of the visitors used the shuttle. So, I suggested, dont worry about it. No big error will be made; no money misspent, if no action is taken. During crowded times, people will be contending with problems they solve everyday, and expect when they vacation in popular places and times. 

Further, Mather Point is the wrong choice, if a grandiose solution is desired. It would be better to restore the rim at Mather, and then choose a used area like the trailer park or the storage area near the Park entrance. Or, "where the center really should be is Tusayan".

I followed this with a long article titled "Mr Watt is Right on Time: The Commercialization of the Grand Canyon". Written in 1981, it was more raving rhetoric than analysis or proposals. There is no indication in my file that it was publicly distributed. And I do not know where this cartoon came from, but it fits here:

4) As clean-up, here are some scraps in my files from 1983 into the 1990's period, when the Mather reception center was indeed built, as described in the 24 Oct 2011 entry based on Brad Traver's recollections.

In July 1983, the Santa Fe said it would tear up the railroad line, and two Phoenix companies said they had bought it in order to build two big resorts. In that year, the Park wrote that it had increased funding for restoration and maintenance by 37% over two years. The projects listed did, indeed, seem to cover a range of fixing things up. 

In 1985, I inquired about the parking-reception proposal, but have no answer. But then, nothing was happening. In 1994, the superintendent seemed to think reservations just for day entry might have to be instituted because the 5 million visitors represented overcrowding. I suggested that NPS work up its plan and submit it to Congress where instead of a long indecisive discussion as in the 1970's, there could be a legislative debate that would have a definitive outcome. Then in the late 90's, the plan for a 3500-car lot in Tusayan with people brought in on light-rail or buses was announced, an effort that saw the reception center built, but defeat of the parking-transport system.

The story of the first decade of the XXIst-century has not been told. However, its result, completed in 2011, is present to be seen.  In some sense, then, 40+ years of effort have been wrapped up. 

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