Grand Canyon at Grave Risk

Trodel, flickr

When Allison Mitkowski got married in 2005, she and her husband, Ethan, went to the Grand Canyon on their honeymoon, and they fell in love ... with the Grand Canyon. It lasted. They went back in 2007 to do a 22-mile North Rim-to-South Rim hike to celebrate a major birthday in the national park.

Finally, two years later, they decided to move to Arizona to be closer to the natural wonder. They still love the Grand Canyon. But they worry.

"It bothers me the way people treat the canyon when they are there," Allison says. "They flick cigarette butts onto the hiking trails, which could cause fire. They leave trash behind. Think of it this way. If every person who starts to hike down the canyon drops one tissue, over time the Grand Canyon would become a huge landfill."

The problem with those tissues is that inadequate funding of the National Parks means fewer people to pick up garbage. Ron Tipton, Senior Vice President for Policy for the National Parks Conservation notes that that is really the heart of the matter. "We've done extensive analysis overall. According to current information, the National Park Service is about $580 million underfunded every year, for operating and managing the park system."

The Grand Canyon has become the poster child in this funding battle, because it is the major national park that gets the most extensive visitation, and it is also the most underfunded. That means fewer rangers, fewer campfire programs, and most important of all, a vast backlog of maintenance issues. According to Tipton, there is a real need to keep the park's buildings, the visitors centers, park lodges, stores, interpretive centers and historic buildings in good condition.

Add to that the need to maintain roads, trails, and shuttle buses. "We're talking a good $300 million in deferred maintenance," Tipton say, noting that the Grand Canyon is the second most visited park in the entire system, trailing only the Great Smoky Mountains. Most of those visitors, however, only go to the South Rim to snap photos, hit the shops, and perhaps treat themselves to lunch at the classic El Tovar hotel.

Visitors to the South Rim; The Javelina, flickr

In fact, only one percent of the visitors to the canyon ever go below the rim. There are a fairly adequate number of rangers in that bustling South Rim area, equipped with everything from salt tablets to water to sound advice for people who, for example, set out to hike down the canyon sporting flip-flops. But the rangers tend to be grossly overworked. There are also rangers on the trails, but not enough.

Then there are the other issues: water pollution, air pollution, noise pollution from the sightseeing helicopters that whir overhead (and, forgivably, from the rescue helicopters when accidents happen in the canyon). But, that said, the Grand Canyon is still able to deliver what many people most want from it: A sense of peace and solitude, in the middle of one of the world's great natural wonders.

"When we did our rim-to-rim hike, we literally walked for seven hours without seeing another person," Mitkowski recalls. "The Grand Canyon has never received the funding that Yosemite and Yellowstone have," Tipton says. His agency's report on the Grand Canyon, and on the resource challenges there, indicates that the park needs $6.2 million a year just to fulfill basic park functions, including hiring full-time and seasonal staff.

Then there are the other things that enhance the park experience : the special tours, the evening programs, the campfire talks and more. Cutbacks are affecting those too. It seems like false economy, when the park brings 4.5 million visitors to Arizona every year, and when those visitors drop some $1 billion while visiting the southwest. Underfunding is not the only major threat, however. Erratic levels in the Colorado River, which flows through the canyon, not only threaten the area's rafting tourism, but also deprives wildlife of much needed water.

grand canyon problems

View from the south rim; gustaffo89, flickr

New mining claims also threaten the canyon. The Salt Lake City Tribune recently reported that a spike in uranium prices could result in some 1,000 new mining claims in the area of around the Grand Canyon. The jury is still out on what impact that mining might have on the area's vegetation and wildlife.

While there is now a two-year moratorium on new claims, the National Park Conservation Association is pushing for a permanent ban on mineral mining in the area that surrounds the park, citing danger to the drinking water, among other issues. While the news is not good at the Grand Canyon and at other of America's other natural and historic attractions as well, it is obvious that the American people really value the park services.

"We've actually seen a small surge in visitation to the parks. I think the value of our national parks becomes greater with every year," Tipton concludes. "As we move toward the centennial of the National Park system in 2016, we as a society need to recognize what a great national treasure these parks are, and to commit to preserving them." As for the Mitkowskis, they've just bought a house not far from the Grand Canyon. Clearly they are there for the duration.

Ten Endangered National Treasures

While many of America's most beautiful and thrilling national parks are on the endangered list -- the result of everything from global warming to traffic pollution to poaching to underfunding -- plenty of other pieces of our heritage, even including one commuter highway, are also in jeopardy. Here's a summary of 10 troubled treasures, chosen at random:

grand canyon problems

Everglades; Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau

Everglades National Park, Florida – Out-of-control sugar farming and refining pollutes the air and water, and reduces water levels in the park; rock mining also endangers one of the world's largest freshwater marshes.

Hinchiffe Stadium, Paterson New Jersey – This glorious 10,000-seat, Art Deco stadium, once home to the Black New York Yankees, is one of three remaining Negro League baseball stadiums. It is now a haven for drug users and gangs.

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia – Air pollution sometimes reduces 100-mile views to as little as a mile; acid rain virtually eliminates scenic views at certain times and damages wildlife.

Wilderness Battlefield, Virginia – Nearly 186,000 Union and Confederate soldiers, under the leadership of Generals Grant and Lee, fought here in May 1864. At the pivotal battle's end, 28,000 soldiers were dead, wounded or missing. Now, Wal-Mart intends to build a quarter -million-square-foot "big box" store, and bring in other stores too, on private land within the battlefield's boundaries.

The Merritt Parkway – Connecticut's Merritt Parkway is one of the prettiest, greenest, most serene roads in the U.S. Its 66 bridges -- -Art Deco, Gothic, French Renaissance, and Art Moderne -- - could be museum pieces. Sadly, increased traffic in Fairfield County has resulted in plans to realign the road, replace the bridges and redesign interchanges.

grand canyon problems

Yosemite; Yosemite/Mariposa County Tourism Bureau

Yosemite National Park – Traffic jams in summer and persistent rumors of crime in the high country can bring a big city sensibility to this most beautiful park. Overcrowding is the hot issue here.

Black Mountain, Kentucky – Kentucky's highest mountain peak looms over two historic coal mining towns, Benham and Lynch, which once boasted populations in the thousands. Now the towns' 1,400 residents have created a mining museum, exhibition mine, and other restored buildings, and have successfully built tourism. A planned 500-acre strip mine close to the historic buildings will damage both the tourist industry and the local environment.

• Lana'i City, Island of Lana'i, Hawaii – Charming little Lana'i City remains the old-fashioned company town that was constructed by Dole Pineapple in the 1920s. However, rumors roil about the possibility of owners Castle & Cooke having plans to destroy historic structures to build a supermarket and other development.

• Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho – This "Old Faithful" national park is one of the most visited, but is dangerously underfunded. Some species numbers have dropped significantly (but others have risen); ozone levels are high; the battle over snowmobile use has led to positive change. In winter 2010-11, only 318 snowmobiles per day will be allowed.

Denali National Park, Alaska – Unregulated snowmobile use in the park pollutes. Large-scale commercial development shatters the peace. The planned construction of a $200 million road on the park's north side could have a negative impact on its caribou and wolves. Climate change is affecting some populations; use of the synthetic pesticide DDT had a negative impact on the American peregrine falcons.

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