The Grand Canyon That Almost Wasn't: Protecting Protected Land
On a recent visit to the Grand Canyon, I did something I don’t normally do. I closed my eyes to hear what Southern Paiutes call the “songscape.”
“They would listen to the wind as it goes through the trees and they would learn their songs by listening to the wind and I think you can still hear it today,” Balsam said.
That’s what Grand Canyon National Park’s Jan Balsom does when she’s feeling overwhelmed. But it’s difficult to hear in some parts of the canyon, where as many as 400 helicopter tours fly over each day.
Balsom’s job is to shield the park from threats like this.
“When we have protected places there is a presumption they’re protected forever,” Balsom said. “You don’t have to worry. We’ve designated it. We’ve put a label on it. And what you come to find when you work in this field is that doesn’t really mean anything because that protection is only as good as the people who are available to help preserve it and steward it.”
On Feb. 26 the Grand Canyon celebrates 100 years since it became a national park. With that status came many federal protections. Still, over the last century, the National Park Service has had to contend with many threats including dams, mines, climate change, and development.
“The most important thing to fight for is our public lands because once we lose these places — no matter what happens with the laws — once we lose these places to extraction, roads, dams, drilling, whatever we don't get them back in our lifetimes,” said Christa Sadler, guide and educator.
On river trips down the Colorado River through the canyon, Sadler takes some of the 6 million visitors the canyon sees each year to a proposed dam site that would have flooded a good portion of the canyon. She tells visitors, we have people like Martin Litton to thank for putting an ad in the New York Times that said, “Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer to the ceiling?”
“By the end of the 60s it was defeated,” Sadler said. “Had the public not stood up and fought for this, everything that we travel to up to that point about mile 38 would have been underwater. We have to stay vigilant and we have to be willing to stand up and speak for these places.”
Some say not enough people spoke up to stop Glen Canyon Dam upstream of Grand Canyon. But as Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles grew so did the demand for air conditioning and drinking water. The dam still provides electricity and water for much of the West today.
But at a cost to the Grand Canyon. The dam replaces natural runoff with artificial flows. It drastically changes the temperature of the river, and it puts a cork in all of the sediment that provides habitats for now endangered animals downstream. Northern Arizona University researcher Matt Kaplinski and other scientists study those impacts.
“The entire riparian ecosystem down along the river corridor, I’ve heard it described as, ‘it’s a house of cards built on sand,’” Kaplinsky said. “When the dam was constructed and all that sediment was blocked people were seeing these sandbar habitats being eroded away. And a lot of the outcry from river runners and environmental activists led to the environmental impact statement.”
That environmental impact statement has led to advisory groups that try to alleviate those impacts. The park has gone so far as to helicopter coolers full of endangered fish called the humpback chub to nearby tributaries so they might have a better chance at survival. Those fish have now been removed from the endangered species list.
Author Kevin Fedarko has spent a good part of two decades in the canyon. And he said when you explore it you begin to notice each geologic layer in the wall of the canyon.
A plaque at the Grand Canyon that quotes former President Theodore Roosevelt.
“You begin to see and appreciate up to 24 different layers depending on how you’re counting and each one of those layers is a kind of solidified representation of an entire vanished era in the history of the planet,” Fedarko said. “The Grand Canyon itself is a time machine. If you start at the rim you will literally be traveling backward in time. The reason all of that matters when you begin to think about, who you are and where you belong in terms of your membership in the human race.”
Fedarko said the Grand Canyon teaches us humility and balance in relation to the far more powerful forces that shape the planet itself.
The park service tries to mitigate threats as best as it can but in the end Grand Canyon spokeswoman Jan Balsom said these places belong to all of us.
“We have to be working with our partners to be able to develop in a way that sustains the experience and the resource at the same time,” Balsom said. “And if we can’t sustain the resource, the experience will suffer.”
Every day at the park Balsom walks by a plaque with a quote from former president Teddy Roosevelt, who made the Grand Canyon a national monument. It says: “Do nothing to mar its grandeur. Keep it for your children, your children’s children. And all who come after you.”