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Updated: Budgeting At Grand Canyon National Park Is Not Always As Simple As You Might Think


In a park with many uses -- mule rides, backpacking, river running -- budgeting to meet needs at Grand Canyon National Park is not always easy or simple. Top photo by Cecil Stoughton, National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection; middle photo NPS; bottom photo, Mark Lellouch, NPS.

Editor's note: This rewords the 15th paragraph to reflect that park officials did not say most comments received on the environmental assessment spoke in favor of above-the-rim rides over Inner Gorge rides.

The recent debate over mule rides in Grand Canyon National Park has left park officials, who say they have to live within their budgets and the public's desires, strongly criticized by mule backers, who say trail impacts might be less of an issue if park managers were smarter with how they spend their money.

Unfortunately for outsiders, fully understanding National Park Service budgeting is not always an easy task. There are funds dedicated to specific aspects of a park's operations, overlapping assignments that can make it difficult to tease out how much is spent on a specific area, and, among other things, funds that must be spent within a specific time-frame.

These challenges can be found in just about every one of the 394 units of the National Park System, which makes the following a helpful primer for those trying to understand how spending decisions sometimes are made in their favorite parks.

When Grand Canyon officials in March 2010 embarked on an environmental assessment to help chart the future of livestock use in the park, they pointed out that "an annual budget of approximately $3 million is needed to adequately maintain the park’s corridor trails; however, the park only receives between $1.5 and $2 million annually through entrance fees, concessions franchise fees and other sources for trail maintenance and repair."

"Additionally," they continued, "deferred maintenance costs on inner canyon corridor trails currently exceeds $24 million (GRCA PAMP 2006) – unless management actions are taken in the near future, trails will continue to fall into disrepair and deferred maintenance costs will continue to increase."

The uproar over the park's eventual decision to restrict public mule rides down to Phantom Range in the park's Inner Gorge to 10 mules per day along the Bright Angel Trail, and 10 a day from Phantom Ranch to the South Rim via the South Kaibab Trail, got me wondering about the trail maintenance funding woes, and how easily it might be to move money from another area to help meet those needs.

Since river trips down the Colorado River are a main attraction of the Grand Canyon and require more than a little attention from the park to manage, I figured that'd be a good place to look into the funding quagmire. What I found out is that nothing is entirely cut-and-dried when it comes to park funding.

For starters, Grand Canyon National Park currently spends about $1.4 million a year on river operations -- the permitting office, river patrols, concessions program, rangers staffing the put-in and takeout, environmental audits, and fee collections from river trips, just to name the most obvious tasks.

To cover that $1.4 million, the park receives a little more than $200,000 for river operations in its base funding from Congress, according to park spokeswoman Maureen Oltrogge. Another $600,000 or so comes from private user fees, she added, and the balance -- some $500,000 -- comes from concession fees.

“That pays for us to administer that operation," she said, "and that, too, pays for a ranger at Lee’s Ferry (the put-in), it pays for a ranger at Meadview (the takeout), it pays for river patrol operations."

And often those river patrols are multi-purpose, Ms. Oltrogge continued, explaining that while there might be a river ranger on the boat, there often might be someone working on Inner Gorge trail maintenance, vegetation studies, or archaeological or fisheries research. As a result, here can be a mingling of park funds traveling in that boat.

"It’s not as clean as you can take it from here without affecting something else. As nice as that would be, you just can’t do that," said Ms. Oltrogge.

Indeed, added Barclay Trimble, the Grand Canyon's deputy superintendent for business services, the money generated by river trips has to be spent on river management.

“All the stuff that comes from cost recovery from the privates (trips), that has to be spent on the resources that are being used to generate those fees. So that really can’t be reallocated at all," he said.

As to the furor over just 10 mule rides a day, park officials pointed out that current use patterns overwhelmingly show there are more hikers in the canyon than mule trips. Nearly 200 comments were received on the draft EA, they said in their synopsis, and "a wide variety of comments were received and a majority supported retention of at least some level of stock use in the park." By making more above-the-rim mule rides available, the park was responding to public demand, the officials said.

"I would say we're providing an opportunity for a bigger population, a bigger visitation base, to have that experience" of a mule ride atop the South or North rims, rather than in canyon's Inner Gorge, Mr. Trimble said during an earlier conversation. "We have had several comments over many, many, many years ... about a need for some above the rim. Not everybody wants to spend a full day going down into the canyon, baking in the sun, and coming back out.”

“The opportunity is still there, we are still providing mules down into Phantom Ranch and the North Rim is providing a ride down into the canyon," he added.

In an editorial endorsing the park's preferred livestock plan, the Arizona Daily Sun pointed to the disparity between the numbers of hikers and mule riders in the canyon.

In truth, it hasn't been the mule rides that have increased dramatically but the number of hikers -- hundreds of thousands now use the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails each year. The two groups have combined to wear out the trails much faster than they can be repaired, resulting in a $20 million backlog of repairs.

But because there are no other viable trail corridors into Phantom Ranch, something had to give, and it was clear that the visitor experiences of 300,000 annual hikers were going to outweigh those of 10,000 mule riders. Deeply rutted trails filled with mule dung and urine, combined with rules of the road that give mule trains priority -- even when they step on a hiker's foot -- made it a foregone conclusion that some of the mules would have to go.

The move to fewer mules in the Grand Canyon is a changing of the recreational guard. While mules long have been associated with the canyon -- Brighty, anyone? -- the demand for mule rides into the canyon at a minimum seems to be slackening, while the influx of hikers determined to hoof it with their gear on their back is climbing.

Under today's budgeting scenario, something had to give, and park officials went into their deliberations with one certainty, as Ms. Oltrogge pointed out during our conversation.

“No matter what decision you make, you’re going to have people happy with it and people who are not," she said.

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I see allot of damage to trails done by rain water, Trail crews from NPS did not put correct water bars in place to prevent this erosion, And now its blamed on Mules ? These trails were developed for mule rides, not hikers, is anyone aware of how much trash is and has been picked up by wranglers that were discarded by hikers ? At least Mules and mule riders don't leave toilet paper and plastic wrappers on the trails as do hikers,,, Just wait and see what happens when there is no help from wranglers and mules to aid hikers and help with trail work, mule rides in the big ditch are bigger than us all including that girl from New York City that will only visit the Canyon once in her life time, and writes a complaint to NPS about the green stain on her white shoes, For wranglers its a way of life and has molded many familys forever as well as the riders, and what about the mules that can live to 60 and has had there Life taken away, and believe me they like to go instead of being penned up,,, The Mule rides in Grand Canyon is world renowned US icon of historic events and something that brings us back to our roots that we are all proud of as a nation, to see these rides vanish due in part by the doing of one or two selfish people on a ego trip is criminal, This is your public land, and this is the peoples park, NOT NPS, Kind Regards Gordon Smith, Grand Canyon Wrangler 1978,1984,1985,1986, 2005,2006.

With all due respect to Maureen on this there are counter arguments that need to be presented.

As to the furor over just 10 mule rides a day, park officials pointed out that the bulk of the public comments collected during the environmental assessment process were in favor of fewer mules in the canyon and that current use patterns overwhelmingly show there are more hikers in the canyon than mule trips. Public comments showed that most of those who did want to ride mules preferred above-the-rim rides instead of a long, arduous trek into the canyon, the officials said."

I have ALL the public comments submitted during the EA scoping process and I don't agree that the majority were anti-mule. When discussing the issue with the Concession Specialist she had told me that it was about 50/50 and besides, "it wasn't a popularity contest." I
What I saw was actually an edge going to the pro riders side with actually stronger arguments. I also know of a great many ultra Canyon hikers that see the balance with the mule's presence and avoid the often shallow (yes, really) comments from the extremes.
The statement that that the public "preferred the above-the-rim rides instead of a long, arduous trek into the Canyon" belies a lack of understanding or for the sake of argument of the VALUE of personal equity into the adventure. Would the signage along the RIM advertising CELL PHONE guided tours be the next logical replacement for all Inner Canyon adventures?

What the decision makers here chose to not only ignore but also refused to allow at SR was any type of public celebration of the 100th Anniversary (100 YEARS) of Grand Canyon Mule Rides during Superintendent Steve Martin's tenure here at the Canyon or even more puzzling the complete non-observance of 4th of July here at South Rim. I would suggest that both :) are significant dates and represent something that strengthens the public's sense of core values (understatement). What is up with that?

There has always been an "above the Rim ride" at Apache Stables who were quite loud in their objections to the addition of the above the rim ride in the Park. It affected the private business with a drop in ridership and employees needed to provide the rides.
What is the reality of the above the rime ride in the Park is that it is NOT doing well. With several of the people I've spoken with it was disappointing and went so far as to ask for refunds. They were expecting the great adventure the Inner Canyon provides and were disappointed. Even before the reduction in numbers it was typical for the need to book reservations a year in advance.

What is the most troubling when I hear comments from NPS is that it would seem that there is a parallel universe of opinions. While the mule/hiker relationship is very intertwined in so many (positive) ways with the almost complete support of Phantom Ranch, the irreplaceable help TO trail maintenance crews, not to mention how many incidents of assistance to hikers (some in VERY serious trouble) by experienced and equipped mule guides. There are 350 requests for assistance and the 250 helicopter evacuations on average PER YEAR! Searches and sometimes tragic retrievals of, mainly ALL hikers. I personally had one Evac in three years of guiding and that was precautionary only. In the 104 year history of commercial mule rides IN the Canyon there has NOT been one mule related death compared to the 25-30 fatalities in the park EVERY year (around 10 of those deaths are hikers, yearly).

There are more, very concerning, elements to this issue that cannot or should not be voiced publically in the desire to reach a positive outcome where corrections are made and everyone benefits. "Corrections " can be difficult to take but they are better than the alternative. No one's perfect, they say :)!

Rock On, Grand Canyon Mules!

Rock on Rich, You have a better way with words than I do,,, By the way, that one time visitor with white shoes could have just watched her step a little better so as to not stain those white Dolce-& Gabbana shoes :),,But if that same gal was ever able to experience graining the mules in the morn and listen to there whimpers and small talk between each other and the guides she would realize just how special these animal are, they really are people to,, they have given there all through the years for the people that wanted to see the inner canyon so I hope just some respect for them will be noted and let them ALL go back home and back to work doing what they love to do, Superintendants come and and go and the bad ones shouldnt have the power to change so many lives and experiences enjoyed so much by many, any one with that kind of power should have to be an elected official by the people, and these NPS people are not, I think its time for that to change, and to Casey Murph, NEVER give up the fight, because this all is very very wrong, and NPS know's it, as for Xantera,they dont back the people who gave them there all, I have no respect for that, Kind Regard's Gordon Smith

Oh, by the way, if it were not for mule rides I wouldnt have my lovely wife and three little girls that Im blessed with, yes my wife was one of my riders, Regards Gordon Smith, Mule Wrangler.

Kurt, nice angle seeing if river ops could help fund other areas. It led to a good observation by park officials that the monies are indeed muddied when it comes to national parks. Every little bit of reportage like this helps point out to public consumers the intricacies and downright difficulties our public lands face in trying to support visitor demands with natural resource realities--all tied together with complicated purse strings.

Mule rides being restricted into the Grand Canyon is sad for both historical reasons and job reasons (hey, that's a living for at least some people). I'd be very curious to see all the public comments available on this, as Rich Granberg mentions. As a lifelong horsewoman who has led thousands of riders on various back- and front-country trails in the Southwest, I have first-hand knowledge of the damage equine hooves do the landscape. And believe me, as Gordon Smith points out, hikers leave a hell of a lot more disgusting trash, do a lot more damage (simply because there are so many more of them), and are often the first to complain about their white shoes getting stained while they're, GASP!, out in nature. Sigh. The mind boggles...but not really.

The Park Service would have a lot more money for the National Parks if they would quit spending money on lawyers to defend run amok employees. How much has been spent on lawyers in the Hubbell case of the Park Service versus Billy Malone? Lawyers do not make the Park Service better! Spend money on making visitors visits more enjoyable, not defending criminal employees so they can get their retirement.

Julie, there are 179 individual comments. You are welcome to copies of the comments. Just message me on Facebook and we can make arrangements. More daylight on this, the better.

Case study for class?

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