An awe-inspiring symbol of not just the American West but of the United States as a whole, the Grand Canyon is visited by nearly five million people each year. This most beloved of national parks is facing some environmental issues. Encroaching development, proposed mining, an influx of yearly visitors and the management of the Colorado River threaten the canyon’s air and water quality. Most national parks are seen as pockets of pristine wilderness nestled among human habitation. In fact, these delicate ecosystems are often affected by activities outside their borders and the very visitors they were preserved to attract.

Grand Canyon National Park

Litter, Litter Everywhere

When President and founder of the National Park Service Theodore Roosevelt spoke at the Grand Canyon in 1903, he said, “…Keep it for your children, your children's children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American … should see.” While it is the park’s intended purpose to be seen by all who wish to visit, the canyon’s ecosystem pays a heavy price. Hiking through the high desert is thirsty work. Thirty percent of the park’s litter each year is made up of plastic bottles. Park officials planned to ban single-use water bottles in the park, a move that echoes a very successful program instituted in Zion National Park in 2008.

The plan has since been scrapped in a controversial decision linking the National Park Foundation (NPF) and the Coca-Cola Company, one of the Foundation’s leading donors. The NPF is a not-for-profit entity charged with soliciting corporate donations to support the parks. Coca-Cola is the bottler of Dasani drinking water. In a statement, a company spokesperson said that Coca-Cola feels that the litter problem would be better addressed by increasing recycling awareness. Conservationists have vowed to challenge the decision in court. The outcome remains to be seen.

A Clean Conundrum

The region surrounding the Grand Canyon contains a large reserve of yellowcake uranium and a battle wages over the right to extract it. The Obama administration hopes to extend a two-year ban on new mines into a 20-year moratorium. Eleven uranium mines are currently under operation and will not be affected by the ban. Proponents of the ban point to the delicate environmental balance of the Colorado River, which runs through the canyon and provides drinking water to 26 million Americans. A report filed by the U.S. Geological Survey says that in random testing, several water samples showed levels of contaminants including uranium above maximum safe levels.

Those who oppose the ban counter that by restricting mining, the administration is depriving the U.S. of a domestic source of uranium, damaging the country’s ability to produce clean energy, impeding national security and hindering job growth. While increased mining would reduce uranium imports, recent events in Japan have made Americans question the safety of nuclear power. A uranium mining accident on the Colorado River would have a devastating impact on humans, wildlife and the environment alike.

Development vs. Environment

On a pristine day in Northern Arizona, a yellow haze hangs over the rim of the majestic Grand Canyon. In recent decades the state has seen an explosion in development both residential and commercial. Even when the heat abates and cool winter breezes blow through the largest Ponderosa pine forest on the continent, the smog from cities and highways pollutes the pristine high desert air.

The prospect of further tourist and residential development near the canyon’s rim threatens the delicate equilibrium of nature. While tourism provides an important source of revenue for the region, the environmental impact of millions of annual visitors cannot be calculated in dollars and cents and is a major environmental issue in grand canyon national park. As with all ecosystems that lie along its basin, the continued management of the Colorado River has an important effect on the Canyon and the entire desert southwest. Striking a balance between the needs of the environment and the needs of people will determine the future of this natural wonder.