Private Companies Battle The National Park Service Over Cost Of Running the Colorado River Through The Grand Canyon

Private Companies Battle The National Park Service Over Cost Of Running the Colorado River Through The Grand Canyon


Private Companies Battle The National Park Service Over Cost Of Running the Colorado River Through The Grand Canyon


Rafting through the Grand Canyon | Photo: Zachary Collier | Cover: Vixip

A few miles south of the Utah/Arizona border sits one of the largest canyons in the world. At almost three hundred miles long, the vastness of the Grand Canyon is indescribable for anyone who has yet to visit. At the bottom of the canyon, more than a mile below the feet of observers, the Colorado River continues to carve deeper and deeper into the face of the earth.

Before the Glen Canyon Dam and the Hoover Dam were built, this stretch of river was unexplored territory believed to be impassable and inhospitable. But in 1869, one man set out to map the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

John Wesley Powell was a one-armed Geology professor from Illinois who felt stagnate in his day-to-day life. His trip down the Grand Canyon set off with nine men, four wooden boats, and enough flour, bacon, and coffee for ten months. The goal was to supplement their food with wild game.

Within days of pushing off, the first boat crashed into a rock and sunk to the bottom of the river with a third of their rations. The group continued for months, finding little food beyond what they brought. The boats crashed into rocks and required repairs that took days. Oars snapped due to the sun rot. Often, the river was deemed un-runnable, and the men made exhausting trips carrying boats and cargo on shore to navigate around rapids. After one such day, three men determined that a 100-mile hike to the closest Mormon camp would be preferable to navigating one more turn down the river. Those three were never heard from again.

Today, a river trip through the Grand Canyon looks a bit different. Glen Canyon Dam controls water flows so rapids are entirely navigable. Most trips start and finish with the same number of people. Trips are days instead of months and the boats are rubber instead of wood. Sleeping under a river of stars that mirrors the river below, with the canyon walls blocking out all the worries of the outside world still makes you think about the experience of the Powell trip, even though now it’s in a synthetic mummy bag. There is, however, still a large amount of bacon and coffee consumed over the course of a trip. That hasn’t changed.

There are two types of trips down the Colorado River. Commercial trips require nothing more than a week and $5,000 per person. A guide is there to navigate the boat, cook for them, even set up the toilet. The boat has dual outboard motors, and easily travels fifty miles or more a day. Rapids are run as though they are mere speed bumps in a road.

While there are many difficult parts of a Private Grand Canyon trip, the hardest part is gaining access to the Colorado river. Once the demand for private trips became burdensome to the river, National Park Service implanted a lottery for permits.

Every February, approximately 6,000 people apply for 300 permits for the next calendar year. That leaves a person with a 5% chance of pulling a permit, with the numbers in practice even lower, as popular dates have more applicants.

Due to the difficulty of pulling a permit, the large majority of visitors on the river visit via commercial trips. Few people know that those operate on permits as well, and earning a commercial permit with launch dates from the National Park Service can be as difficult, or more, than pulling a private permit.

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Dramatically different than other viewpoints at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, Toroweap Overlook peers out over an abrupt 3,000-foot drop into the canyon. Volcanic cinder cones and ancient lava flows make this area unique, but the part that makes it unforgettable is the view down to the Colorado River flowing like a shimmering ribbon. Access is challenging and demands skill at negotiating difficult roadways. Services are non-existent with no access to water, gas, food, lodging or phone service, but the uncrowded views and peaceful solitude make it worth the planning and effort. Photo by Peter Kang ( [Image description: Sheer cliffs dropping several thousand feet to a river at the bottom of a narrow canyon.] Thanks for posting @usinterior #GrandCanyon #Arizona -mq

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Commercial services that operate within the boundaries of a National Park work on what’s called a “concessionaires permit.” From the iconic lodges in the national parks down to the guides humping gear up and down a hill, those services are provided by third parties, not the national park.

Concessioners fill a vital role with helping the National Park Service (NPS) carry out its mission. Private companies work with the NPS to offer services to park visitors that parks do not provide directly. By welcoming the private sector as a partner in park operations, the NPS broadens the economic base of the region and the communities surrounding parks. With other NPS divisions, the Commercial Services Program administers nearly 500 concession contracts that, in total, gross over $1 billion annually. NPS concessioners employ more than 25,000 people in a variety of jobs during peak seasons, providing services ranging from food and lodging, to whitewater rafting adventures and motor coach tours. – NPS

The people who live and work within the boundaries of our national parks are employees of large companies such as Vail Resorts and Xanterra. Organizations who are better known for looking after their shareholders and board members, rather than looking after the environment.
In theory, the deal protects both the National Park, as well as the concessionaire. The National Park can put stipulations in the permit, and allow a concessionaire in good standing to renew, or go to bid if the operator is in poor standing.

The Colorado river below the Glen Canyon Dam | Photo: Chmehl

When Yellowstone was up for bid in 2013, the permit required exorbitant improvements across the park. Xanterra promised over $200 million dollars in improvements over the 20 year term to win the bid. For a park like Yellowstone and a company like Xanterra, they’ll make plenty of money to cover the cost of those improvements and still make money on the deal. However, in some situations, a concessionaire permit can hamstring companies to the point where a bid just doesn’t make financial sense.

This was the case with the most recent concessionaires permit for Guided Whitewater trips through the Grand Canyon. The permit would run for ten years, from 2019 to 2028, requiring a concessionaire to run multi-day river trips through the Grand Canyon. Much of the permit remained the same, except for one major distinction. The payment to National Park Service to operate increased dramatically. What was a sliding scale of 4-18% of Gross Receipts on the old contract increased to 5-22.5% of Gross Receipts.

“The fact that these payments come out of gross revenues, rather than net profits, means that a concessionaire is required to make these payments, even if it means operating at a loss,” – AP

Current contract operators and congress people panicked and asked the National Park Service for justification as to why the increase occurred. They didn’t have an answer (or at least a justifiable one.) Due to the response from the local Arizona community, the park decided to extend current operating permits for an additional year until they can further judge the impact on the rafting community in the Grand Canyon

Through Amendment #5, NPS has elected to cancel the solicitation to conduct further analyses. We anticipate issuing a solicitation in 2019. The Service intends to publish a notice to extend the existing contracts through December 31, 2019 to avoid an interruption of visitor services. – NPS – Amendment 5

Stay tuned as more information becomes available through the 2019 season.
If you want to read (or apply for) any open concessionaires permit, you’ll find the list here. Fair warning though, you’ll need a stiff cup of coffee or cocktail to make it through.

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