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The Grand Canyon Trust: The Story That Most of Us Don’t Know

Tourists gather at one of the many Grand Canyon South Rim overlooks at sunset.

One of the more popular day-trip destinations for Sedona visitors is the Grand Canyon. Normally, they’ll drive a rental vehicle or hop on a tour bus for the two-plus hour ride to the South Rim. After several hours walking the rim path, stopping at the overlooks for some memorable snapshots, browsing a few gift shops, and having lunch or dinner in one of the hotel restaurants, they turn around and head back to Sedona.

Unfortunately, that is very often the extent of their exposure to and knowledge of the Grand Canyon. In most cases, they know very little if anything about the many threats posed to the Canyon, present and future. Looming perils include economic and environmental hazards caused by uranium mining, massive and poorly conceived commercial developments, and the depletion of the ground water that feeds the numerous springs in the Canyon. These and other menaces are jeopardizing the Canyon’s future and also threatening the quality of its visitors’ experience. One of the world’s greatest treasures is being challenged on all sides, and unless proactive steps continue to be taken to defend it, we will no longer have it to enjoy in the way that we do now.

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Grand Canyon Trust Headquarters

Enter into the foray the intrepid Grand Canyon Trust, which has led the fight for over 30 years to protect the Canyon and the Colorado Plateau against all of these threats. While major victories have been won by the Trust and its supporters, some of its most daunting challenges lie ahead. The organization states as its mission: “To protect and restore the Colorado Plateau – its spectacular landscapes, flowing rivers, clean air, diversity of plants and animals, and areas of beauty and solitude.”

The Grand Canyon Trust was conceived by an adventurous group of passionate conservation advocates and visionaries while on a river trip down the Colorado River in 1984. The group understood the fragility of the river and Canyon environment and had witnessed firsthand its destruction caused by the lack of good stewardship.

The Grand Canyon Trust was formally established in 1985, and two of its founders included Bruce Babbitt, former Secretary of the Interior and Governor of Arizona, and Stewart Udall, also a former Secretary of the Interior. Other leaders of the conservation and river communities also played an important role in its formation. Within the first year, the geographic boundaries of the area covered by the Trust were expanded to include the entire Colorado Plateau. What contributed to the formation of the Trust were concerns that very little if anything was being done to protect the Canyon against its many threats, including:

  • The lack of proper management of the operation of Glen Canyon Dam and the resulting adverse effects on recreation and the biology of the river;
  • Overflights from airplanes and helicopters;
  • Air quality concerns emanating from the Navajo Generating Station; and
  • Threats to tribal communities across the Colorado Plateau.

The Trust wasted no time in pursuing its mission, and as a result, was able to achieve some significant successes in its early years by working closely with both political parties and a diverse group of agencies and organizations with a stake in the future of the Canyon. This collaboration resulted in the 1992 Grand Canyon Protection Act which, among other directives, stated that Glen Canyon Dam be operated in a manner “to protect, mitigate adverse impacts to, and improve the condition of the environmental, cultural, and recreational resources of the Grand Canyon National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation area.” The uneven flows of the river caused by the dam operation intended to maximize power generation were wreaking havoc on the ecology of the river by destroying natural habitats and eroding beaches. Senator John McCain was instrumental in the passage of this legislation and his involvement was a testament to the bi-partisan support for protecting the Canyon.

Other significant successes included the cleaning of the Atlas Mine tailings pile near Moab, Utah, installation of 400,000 scrubbers at the Navajo Generating Station to clean up its emissions, and the passage of the 1987 National Parks Overflight Act, establishing guidelines for regulating airplane and helicopter overflights.

Ethan Aumack, Conservation Director, Grand Canyon TrustEthan Aumack, Conservation Director, Grand Canyon TrustRecently, we had the opportunity to visit the Grand Canyon Trust offices in Flagstaff and learn about the many significant challenges that lie ahead for the Trust, as articulated by key staffers Ethan Aumack, Conservation Director, Roger Clark, Grand Canyon Program Director, and Emily Thompson, Volunteer Program Director.

Ethan joined the Trust in 1999 as a volunteer, and has served in various positions since that time. In order to further the mission of the Trust, Ethan has worked tirelessly to build alliances with unlikely organizations and individuals, and form partnerships and friendships with those not traditionally affiliated with the conservation movement. These partnerships have been instrumental to many of the successes achieved by the Trust over the years.

As explained by Ethan, the current and future focus of the Trust can be divided into four areas: land; water; energy; and Native America. Within the areas of focus lies the daunting task of collaborating with other agencies, elected officials, and Native American tribes across the Colorado Plateau to restore our forests, prevent further uranium mining in and around Grand Canyon National Park, and prevent harmful tourist developments that could potentially deplete the groundwater that feeds the springs in the Canyon and threaten tribal homelands. The Trust is also involved in safeguarding the Grand Canyon’s seeps and springs, restoring watershed health through the reintroduction of the beaver, and opposing water-intensive energy extraction that threatens water quality and quantity in the Colorado River Basin.

Emily Thompson, Volunteer Program Director, Grand Canyon TrustEmily Thompson, Volunteer Program Director, Grand Canyon TrustVolunteer Program Director Emily Thompson joined the Trust in early 2011, and has worked with the Trust’s volunteer program since that time. Emily is passionate about connecting people to the stunning and diverse landscape of the Colorado Plateau, and creating lifelong stewards and advocates of the land.

Emily went into detail about the many different volunteer opportunities that assist the Trust in its mission. Volunteers can get involved in such issues as: restoring wildlife habitat and wetlands; closing roads to protect wild landscapes; returning the beaver to its historic range to restore watersheds; and collecting data to improve grazing practices, thereby helping to prevent the spread of invasive species. Volunteers can get involved in partnership opportunities with Native American communities to plant and harvest traditional crops, maintain ancient running trails, and install solar electricity for local residents. The Trust offers unique citizen science training programs that equip the public to become more knowledgeable stewards. These are just a few of the opportunities available to all ages of volunteers. To learn more, or if you would like to volunteer, visit: www.grandcanyontrust.org/volunteer

Roger Clark, Grand Canyon Program Director, has been involved with the Trust for over 25 years. He joined the Trust in 1989, and at the time was engaged in such key issues as cutting coal plant pollution, reducing aircraft noise, and promoting better management of Glen Canyon Dam’s destructive flows. In the mid-90s, he moved on to run programs at the Museum of Northern Arizona and returned to the Trust in 2005. He has continued to fight against coal plants, promote renewable energy, and helped to organize a campaign to secure the 20-year ban on new uranium mines around Grand Canyon.

Roger Clark, Grand Canyon TrustRoger Clark, Grand Canyon Program Director, Grand Canyon TrustRoger is currently working to prevent a major commercial development proposed on the Navajo Reservation that includes building a tourist tram below the rim to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers. He also is working to make the uranium mining temporary ban permanent. He observed firsthand the disruption that overflights of helicopters and airplanes had on the Canyon. He spoke about raising the consciousness of the public through stories about the Canyon that would put people into the landscape and capture their imagination. These stories serve as a tool to educate and inform the public about the challenges threatening the future of the Canyon and the importance of its preservation.

One of the Trust’s major areas of emphasis includes partnering with Native American Tribal Communities across the Colorado Plateau to ensure that the Plateau’s bio-cultural diversity survives and thrives despite a number of challenging obstacles. As articulated by the Trust, tribal communities across the Colorado Plateau face such formidable issues as: loss of language and culture; 50% unemployment rates; lasting and damaging impacts of past uranium mining; dependence on revenues from endangered power plants and coal mines; and the threats of global warming.

Tribal members, communities, and governments are being tested to concurrently balance cultural preservation, sustainable economic development, and environmental protection. At times, these three critically important goals are in conflict with each other. The success of managing such diverse interests shaping the Canyon’s future will define the vitality and sustainability of the Plateau over the coming decades. It remains one of the highest priorities of the Trust to partner with the numerous tribal communities on the Colorado Plateau as well as other government agencies and elected officials to find solutions to these difficult problems.

Grand Canyon Views

In the coming weeks, we will be “drilling down” in greater detail regarding some of the most pressing threats facing the Colorado Plateau and will report on the specific programs initiated by the Grand Canyon Trust. We’ll cover topics such as: unbridled energy development; the threat of uranium mining; ill-conceived commercial developments; the effects of climate change and drought; inefficient public lands policies; and the lack of sufficient funding for effective land management. The goal is to raise the consciousness of our visitors about the fragility of America’s greatest treasure, the threats that it faces, and the actions being taken to preserve and protect the Canyon.

The Grand Canyon and other natural assets on the Colorado Plateau are intricately woven into the fabric of the vibrant economy of Northern Arizona. Unless that fabric is properly cared for, it will deteriorate and eventually rot. That is another reason why the mission of the Trust is so important, and why we all should be concerned about the preservation of the Canyon and the Colorado Plateau.

The Grand Canyon Trust is at the tip of the spear in the fight to protect one of the world’s greatest treasures, and has courageously and tenaciously led this crusade for over 30 years. The staff of the Trust are passionate about their mission and continue to work tirelessly to protect the Canyon and other natural assets on the Colorado Plateau. Many formidable battles lie ahead, and in order to continue to succeed in its mission, it is clear that significant financial and political support, and strategic partnerships will be needed.

To learn more about the Grand Canyon Trust, visit www.GrandCanyonTrust.org.

Reference note: Some of the information used in this article was extracted from the Grand Canyon Trust website, www.grandcanyon.org, and the fall/winter edition of its magazine, The Advocate.

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