The Shadow Side of the Greatest of Canyons

The Shadow Side of the Greatest of Canyons

The National Park Service celebrates the 100th anniversary of its existence this year with record numbers of people flocking to its lands to experience their majesty. The NPS has successfully set aside and safeguarded many of the natural features of America’s geography from the rape of industrialization and resources banditry. They have created oasis’s in the midst of our overproduced and exploited land that offers respite from our crowded cities and urban sprawl. Unfortunately the saintly, heroic image the NPS presents to the public at the Grand Canyon does have its tarnishes.

Visitation at the Grand Canyon South Rim has been steadily increasing over the years. 2015 was a record year and 2016 looks to be the biggest yet. Unfortunately the Park is not ready for its multitude of guests. They are not keen on expanding their facilities to accommodate the onslaught of visitors or for the employees who cater to them. For instance, due to the lack of new employee housing foreign guest workers last year had to spend the winter in unheated cabins that were originally built for Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930’s. Normally these cabins are left empty in the winter.

At one time there were 130 more parking places in the main part of the South Rim called the Village. It is in this most congested of areas that they were removed to build a ramp to accommodate handicapped guest in keeping with the accessibility code. Unfortunately the ramp winds up a somewhat steep incline that I have as yet to see anyone use other than the mule riders in the morning. The loss of 130 parking spaces is a major problem with the amount of traffic volume that the Park gets.

The parking lots at the Visitor’s Center two miles away are little better. Overflowing in the summer and holidays, frustrated people park on the roadsides and in unmanageable spots making for dangerous bottlenecks. Selfishness ensues as well- one RV can easily take up four much needed car spaces. The Park would do well to offer the drivers of these modern Conestoga wagons a map of parkable areas for their massive cruisers.

Long lines form at the southern entrance to the Park once the morning’s sun is high. The two lanes of cars vying to enter past the six gate booths often run the whole mile and a half back to the middle of the tourist town of Tusayan, a bastion of free private enterprise outside the boundaries of the Park.

Four of the gates are for regular motorists and two on the far right are for commercial vehicles. The problem is, the tourists can use the commercial entrances too. This badly slows down the numerous buses and sight seeing vehicles that are on a schedule and need to get through as quickly as possible. Three hour tour vehicles often spend 45 minutes of that time waiting in line. There is a bypass hidden in the woods for Park employees to go through that is never crowded that could be used, but the Park will not consider it for commercial vehicles. Xanterra, the main concessionaire at the Park, runs the crucial taxi service for the Park and is not allowed use of it either. This lack of sensitivity on the Park’s case results in both guests and taxis being greatly disadvantaged. It severely restricts the already often beleaguered taxi drivers with long, unnecessary waits. Add to this frustration that Xanterra runs the taxi service at a financial loss to meet its contract with the Park.

There is a great tension between Xanterra and the Park’s upper echelon. The Park authorities in general have a chip on their shoulders with Xanterra for both legitimate and self centered reasons. Xanterra took over the concessionaire indirectly from the Fred Harvey company which was embedded in the Grand Canyon South Rim long before it even became a National Park. Fred Harvey was an English rags to riches immigrant’s son who made good for himself bringing Eastern hospitality to the wild west with his railroad located eateries that were several steps above the sloppy and often criminal grubs that existed before him.

The Fred Harvey Company was actually responsible for most of the historic buildings raised inside the Park. It was Harvey himself who discovered and employed Mary Colter, the prodigious and original architect of most of the major structures at the Canyon. It is the ownership of these buildings and services that irks the National Park stewards. The National Park system does not like answering to anyone else but themselves. Xanterra, unfortunately for them, holds the keys to these places.

It is probably because of this animosity that the Grand Canyon National Park antied up $100 million to buy the entire eastern end of Xanterra’s holdings at Desert View. This included Colter’s famous Watchtower, one of her last buildings designed to resemble a gigantic version of the 800 year old Pueblo watchtowers found scattered throughout northern Arizona and the other buildings surrounding it. It was a huge amount of bucks for them to cough up. Despite the record levels of attendance, the Rangers always seem to have a shortage of cash. After the Desert View purchase that was compounded. In fact, the Park now must take on corporate sponsors such as Anheuser Busch, the All American company now owned by Belgians, to pay their bills.

To come up with the $100 million, the Grand Canyon had to borrow money from eighty-eight other National Parks. Many of them, including the GC, had to raise their admission fee from $25 to $30 as a result. Internal budgets and programs had to be cut as well as jobs. This year there are still not enough Rangers to maintain the Park although the Grand Canyon South Rim has one of the premier training facilities for the Rangers in the country. Ideally, the Park would like to buy out the entire Xanterra workings in the Park, but that would be a daunting task as Xanterra not only owns most of the historic buildings but also most of the hotels, restaurants and stores there. They run the private railroad that shuttles tourists in 65 miles daily from Williams, the nearest town of any size, and the mule riding business that takes guests down to the bottom of the Canyon.

The entire concessionaireship came up for review in 2015. All National Park allows bidding every so often between major resort corporations to run the whole shebang. The Park would have loved to have someone take over the business, but how many corporations are ready to run a railroad and a mule riding business? Or to pay a whopping 198 million dollars to buy out Xanterra for its 300 iconic buildings and improvements? The buying of the park’s concession business was made further difficult by the considerable rise in the Park’s percentage of profit from local sales from 3.8% to 14% . As a result no one bid on it (including Xanterra) and it defaulted back to Xanterra, surely much to the chagrin of the headmasters of the Grand Canyon hierarchy.

Because of all this Monopolyesque gamesmanship going on Xanterra and its employees at the Grand Canyon went through a major crisis in the fall of 2014. Their year to year contract with the Park was set to expire and it was obvious that the higher ups in the Park system wanted them out. If an agreement was not reached by Jan. 1st then Xanterra and its employees would be out of both job and home. With Delaware North, another smaller concessionaire at the Canyon, receiving a disproportionate share of the housing and Xanterra employees needing to exit their apartment, dorms and trailer spots on the dawn of the new year, it created a lot of stress and anxiety for the workers. Xanterra would also have to remove all its moveable assets in the early winter months of 2015.

In sheer frustration at the situation Xanterra finally turned and sued the National Park over mismanagement of their contract… According to Xanterra CEO Andrew Todd, the concessionaire had “exhausted every avenue in an effort to correct this situation in an amicable and commercially reasonable manner before it became a crisis for so many families and the community, but the NPS has chosen to ignore the obvious problems created by its arbitrary decisions.”

The National Park purchase of the Desert View Watchtower put the Park in the red. With the huge debts due to Xanterra and other expenses one would think that the Park would be doing all in its power to overcome these liabilities, but the truth is is that the Park is not terribly business savvy. It does not seem to understand that people will buy less when they come the grocery store there and find that a box of cereal costs $9.00. Not wanting a gas station in the Village area (the former one is now used for storage and parking) means that a rip-off gas station just outside the Park can jack his prices up exorbitantly, as he is the only petrol place for 25 miles in both directions. Entrance revenue is lost when visitors are allowed in free on certain holidays that they would have been willing to pay anyway and be coming in in large numbers. Business is stymied by the Park’s throat throttle tight control over the number of stores and restaurants allowed to do business there.

Strangely, the too tight revenue cutting has resulted in the Park not putting money into the one would thing you would think was the most vital service of all- its water pipeline. Water for both the North Rim and the South Rim of the Canyon comes from three waterfalls at the bottom of the north side of the Canyon. Both sides have no water resources of their own. The pipeline, which transverses 16 miles of steep slopes from its source to the faucets in the Village area and is pumped a mile vertically up often breaks down causing costly and difficult repairs. This happened big time in June of this year when it looked like the whole Canyon might have to shut down. The Park asked visitors and employees to take only short showers and had the eateries use plastic utensils and paper plates to avoid cleaning standard eating ware. These are a policy that should have been implicated long ago even without a water shortage.

NPS plays favorites with its concessionaires. In disagreements between Xanterra, who runs the tour buses inside the Park, and Paul Revere, a Boston based company who runs the shuttle buses, the Park always favors Paul Revere. The Revere transit company is directly under the thumb of the Park and must follow rigid guidelines in the running of the shuttles. GC Park also favors with Delaware North as can be seen by the lopsided number of employee housing awarded to them and to their being charged a lesser profit fee.

Delaware North also got a lot of clout and money-making properties in the Village in the deal. They already ran the well stocked but outrageously priced (especially for employees) grocery store (with the National Park setting the prices.) Under the new contract they got control of Trailer Village where guests and a large number of Xanterra employees already lived. Delaware promptly jacked the lot price up from $100 a month for a lot to $250 causing a lot of gnashing of teeth among the employees and a mass exodus to what extremely limited cheaper gigs there were elsewhere.

Communications between the three main entities is usually spotty or non-existent as well. A Xanterra bus tour of the Desert View Watchtower got a rude awakening when the paying guests got out to the Tower and found it to be closed for renovations without any prior notice. A gruff Ranger made sure no one got in for the sightseeing they had paid good money for. Road closures often go unannounced and are usually found out about thanks to reports back to dispatch from early morning taxi drivers.

For some reason the reach of the Park’s command is long. Xanterra used to drive outside the boundaries of the Park shuttling visitors to Flagstaff 84 miles away and to Page where the Grand Canyon starts 139 miles away. The Park said ixnay to this. It is not clear as to why they would have a say in whatever business Xanterra carries on outside the confines of the National Park, but apparently they do as Xanterra no longer extends this service. This had to be an incredible loss of business for them.

Safety is highly touted by the Park Service and their rescue teams are probably among the best in the US (imagine rescuing people from 300 foot cliffs in a mile deep hole in the ground or searching for a missing hiker over almost 2,000 square miles of earth). However, on less dramatic issues they are sadly lacking. The absence of sidewalks on the sides of the Maswick Lodge in the heart of the Village and elsewhere causes great numbers of people to have to walk in the busy streets where buses and delivery vehicles also roam. Also the confusing loop street through the Village is a two way street part of the way then suddenly becomes a one way and is poorly signed.

The Grand Canyon Rangers are in charge of Highway 69 that runs through the Park. It runs north out of Williams, takes an abrupt 90 degree turn 10 miles after entering the Park and runs a 25 mile gauntlet of Ponderosa pine and cliff edges out to its eastern entrance at Desert View. Unfortunately, with the Rangers being short staffed, it is not well maintained. The Rangers have a minimal police presence out at Desert View, so if an accident happens in that stretch or in the National Park that runs another 20 miles out to the Navajo Reservation, ambulances and squad cars must be sent out from the headquarters in the Village. In winter any sort of snow storm can shut down the road meaning guests, employees and deliveries at the eastern entrance must detour 180 miles around through Flagstaff to the south to get to the main part of the Park.

Sometimes the winter maintenance of the roads is inexcusable. I was driving a bus at noon on the main road into the Park on an icy winter’s day. Most maintenance departments in snow impacted areas will have their roads shoveled or at least sanded by sunrise. Here was not such a case. I approached the turnoff towards Desert View on a slight uphill when I found my way blocked ahead by two cars that had spun out. Several in back of me were having the same problem. Fortunately I had no one on board, so I put on the air brake and got out to help the first car. After getting them going I went over to help an older couple off to one side of the road when the man suddenly yelled “Look!” and pointed at the bus. To my horror it was sliding slowly back down hill. Racing as fast as I could on the icy surface I managed to get in the bus and brake it to a stop. Had I not been able to stop it it would have backed off the edge and flipped over into the trees.

In the winter for the months of December, January and February the local in-Park shuttle bus closes down its service on the Hermit’s Rest road that journeys out to the western end of the Park’s street system. It runs eight miles along the cliffs to a Mary Colter designed building called Hermit’s Rest. During this lull in commuter accessibility the Park allows motorists to drive up the twisty, narrow road that edges along the canyon rim. And motor homes. And RV’s. And RV’s trailing cars behind them.

Unfortunately the Park does not warn the RV’s and motor homes that some of the viewing points are really too narrow for them to fit into safely which causes plug ups in the entrances and exits. Winter weather makes it even more treacherous and way too many cars wander in and park irresponsibly. Often the Xanterra buses cannot get into the smaller points for their scheduled sight seeing tours. They must often forgo the most popular lookout, Hopi Point, altogether because it is so jammed full.

The Hermit’s Rest road as well is often closed when road conditions worsen. At times in the winter of 2015/16 both Hermit’s Rest and Desert View roads were closed down at the same period giving the guests present virtually no where to sight see outside the general Village area and wrecking hell with the working hours for all the concessionaires, taxis and bus drivers.

Another sign of strange disregard for the guests visiting the Park is the shortage of restrooms. Along Hermit’s Rest road there is only a two seater restroom (actually an outhouse) for the hoards of bus riders, bicyclists and hikers enroute at the midway spot of Hopi Point. There have been times in the summer when there have been as many as six buses packed with guests and half of them are waiting in line for the restroom. Many complain of having spent their whole visitation time waiting in that line.

The Park system has an understandable fixation on keeping the park as close to its natural state as possible. But they often take things too far. Before the Grand Canyon became a National Park in 1919 the Fred Harvey Company ran the whole show there. The El Tovar, then and now the premier restaurant and hotel at the Canyon, would raise it own food on property due to its remoteness. For a time they had their own dairy, greenhouses, gardens and farm animals. When the Park took over they eventually saw all these elements as being invasive species and had them removed. Now all the food must be shipped in from Phoenix in huge semi’s at considerable expense. Sadly, only a lonely apple and peach tree are all that’s left of the El Tovar’s cornucopia.

This mass transit of food stuffs might be in line with the parks ‘no foreign entities’ at the Canyon philosophy, but it violates other parts of the Parks tenets. It is creating a larger carbon foot print with the gas used in transporting the sustenance, it de-localizes its food sources and it destroys the self sufficiency that the Park once enjoyed.

On the other hand, the entire National Park system seems to suffer from a case of Ludditism. At the various parks where I have worked for a concessionaire there is often a lack of housing for non-Park employees. At Denali National Park there were several concessionaires and small store owners crunched into a narrow strip of non-Park property also named the Village (being seasonal the Canyon’s ”twin” has no official name). It’s stores and single gas station are only open May to mid-October. The remaining seven months of the year it is locked up like a ghost town with only a few maintenance people residing to keep the pipes from freezing. The rest of the land is untouchable National Park which the authority steadfastly refuses to develop (rightfully so, but it is taken to a cruel extreme) and a strip of State land. Latecomers getting jobs must have an RV or go 18 miles up the highway to the only town for dozens of miles to hopefully find a rent-able cabin or room in an established household.

I have seen ski resorts who lease the Park system land their slopes are on. In more than one the parking lots were built in the 60’s or 70’s when cars and truck were smaller. The Parks doesn’t get that they need to rebuild the parking spaces larger to correctly accommodate the bigger extended cab pickups and SUV’s that exist now. This makes a dangerous situation on the already too narrow roads for cars to pass safely and also makes it very hazardous for people walking back to their cars from the slopes in their ski boots to walk around them in downhill traffic, especially on icy days.

The Park did little good for the natives who were already living here when they took over dominance of the Canyon in 1919. The Havasupai had been in this area for 800 years and were one of the few tribes to establish themselves down inside the Canyon. They still have a village halfway down a side valley called Havasu. Over the last couple centuries they have had to fight off silver miners and watch as the Park encroached on their land taking all their holdings on the upper rim where they used to hunt elk in the winter. A figure no less than Teddy Roosevelt told a couple of Havasupai to their faces at their oasis called Indian Gardens below the Village that they would have to leave because the land was now a National Park. That garden spot is now the main thoroughfare for hikers going across the canyon that they have lost forever, but a 20th century court case won them back a large chunk of their lands on the plateau. Fortunately this small colony of about 550 natives now posses a sizable reservation where they can live their own lives in one of the most beautiful spots in the southwest.

The Superintendent who seemed to be behind a lot of these situations at the Grand Canyon was Dave Uberuaga who has since slid into some hot water himself. He had a previous scandal at Mt. Rainier National Park while serving there as Deputy Supervisor over making a huge profit from selling his home for over three times the assessed value under questionable circumstances to a Park contractor. Just this past year at the GC he was embroiled in another when complaints reached the ears in Washington about ongoing sexual harassment of female employees using or working on the boats the Park runs at the Colorado River. These were apparently swept under the carpet for as long as ten years. With the usual saving face and a guaranteed financial security common to so many government jobs, the persons in involved were not fired but switched into other positions without losing any pay and the boat service terminated. It eventually did come back to bite Uberuaga, however, when he was given the choice from higher ups to quit or take a job in the D.C. Area. He opted for retirement- at the generous pay typical for government employees.