A 700-mile Grand Canyon hike leads to insights on parks threats

Kevin Fedarko and Peter McBride saw firsthand how extractive industries have changed one of our national treasures.
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In 2015, Kevin Fedarko and Peter McBride set out to thru-hike more than 700 miles across the entire length of the Grand Canyon to raise awareness about the threats facing one of the nation’s most iconic national parks. 

The expedition resulted in a feature for National Geographic and a nationwide speaking tour. Much of the Grand Canyon is federally protected within the national park, but fast-growing mining and tourism operations threaten the wilderness just beyond its borders. 

It’s an unfortunate preview of what could become of Utah lands that recently lost their national monument status under the Trump administration. Fedarko, an award-winning travel writer and part-time Grand Canyon river guide, and McBride, who won praise for his three years documenting the length of the Colorado River through photography, film, and writing, have come to Outdoor Retailer to rally the industry against a surge of encroachment on the nation’s public lands

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Even before protections for public lands were revoked in Utah, our national parks have been under pressure. What are some of your top concerns?

Kevin Fedarko: On a broad level, I see tension between two impulses—to protect the environment and to monetize natural resources. Those two forces are opposed to one another within almost every unit in the national park system. It’s part of what drew us to the Grand Canyon. That park is a microcosm of those tensions.

Peter McBride A big issue that gets overlooked is how our national parks are being threatened by [extractive and tourism industries on] the lands that surround them.

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What evidence did you see of that on your expedition?

KF: Grand Canyon, in particular, faces harm on all four sides. To the east, there’s an effort to build a tramway that would deliver 10,000 people a day to the bottom of the canyon. To the south and north, there are uranium and water claims being sought after. And to the west, perhaps the most disturbing, is an invasion of helicopter air tours with 300 to 500 flights a day flying below the rim that directly disturb nature within the park.

PM: We saw evidence of older threats, too, including Marble Canyon Dam [an abandoned dam project from the 1940s that today sits within the park’s boundaries] and areas previously damaged by mining, from which you couldn’t even drink the water—which of course is so vital when you’re traversing the desert. We think we know these landscapes, but we don’t know them very well.

How can we confront these challenges to our national parks and public lands? Do we need new rules in the parks?

PM: We haven’t framed it as new rules. It’s more about driving the public to appreciate these places, so that they’re not just coming for 25 minutes, having a champagne breakfast at the bottom of the canyon, and checking off a bucket list. We don’t expect everyone to go hike 700 miles, but you can enjoy, appreciate, and connect to these places without all the developments and luxuries. We’re looking to build awareness with books, films, and speaking tours of our experience.

Is there a larger issue at play of society wanting to speed through life and check off bucket lists, including in the outdoors?

PM: I think there’s some truth to that. We’ve seen evidence of it in these areas of natural beauty that are easy to get to. They get flooded on social media with photos and videos and then get flooded by people looking for an easy bucket list check.

KF: That’s one aspect of our national parks that doesn’t get a lot of attention. These places aren’t just repositories of natural beauty; they represent areas to disconnect and slow down. It astonishes me that our parks aren’t more revered. And it astonishes me that we find ourselves having to fight over their protection every year, whether it’s from automobiles in Yosemite, snowmobiles in Yellowstone, or helicopters in Grand Canyon. 

PM: We’ve become too disconnected to the natural world and its resources, coddled by our comforts. The story of the Colorado River is emblematic of that. In my lifetime, it has dried up completely in areas.

In December, President Trump announced he was shrinking Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah. Those politics played a role in moving Outdoor Retailer from Utah to Colorado. What was  your call to action at the Conservation Alliance Breakfast?

KF: We all need to be aware that there is a well-organized, well-financed attack on our public lands. This is an effort that has been building steam for decades. The industry has to organize to stop it. It will require as much energy and passion as the other side is putting into it. If we fail, the industry won’t have the real estate for its gear to be used. That’s a direct threat to the bottom line to every company that has a booth at Outdoor Retailer.

PM: Many of us are already fighting this, but it needs to become part of our business plans. We need to become the stewards of our public lands. Originally, the steward was the federal government, but now, unfortunately, that isn’t the case.

This article originally appeared in Day 1 of The Daily at Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show (winter 2018).

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