Op-Ed: Protect the Grand Canyon Watershed

An OARS trip lands near the Nankoweap in the Grand Canyon. Photo by James Kaiser
An OARS trip lands near the Nankoweap in the Grand Canyon. Photo by James Kaiser

By George Wendt

My river journey started in 1962, on a trip down the Colorado River through Glen Canyon. We had a couple of dozen people on all variety of craft, including the Huck Finn-type vessel that my friend and I constructed out of inner tubes and planking. We maneuvered our “raft” with canoe paddles, but with a swift current fueled by plentiful mountain snowmelt, we didn’t have to work hard to make downstream progress. I remember thinking it felt like a magic carpet ride through a beautiful paradise.

Shortly after this transformative experience, Glen Canyon Dam was constructed, drowning the canyon deep under Lake Powell. With that experience came a profound sense of loss and an urgency to protect places like Glen Canyon for future generations. It ultimately became my calling to deliver people into the wilderness and build excitement for these wild places. Because as I’ve grown to understand over the years, we save what we love and we love what we know.

Since 1969, when we started as the first exclusively oar-powered rafting outfitter authorized to run trips in the Grand Canyon, O.A.R.S. has worked directly with the National Park Service to guide visitors through the grandest canyon on Earth. We are grateful to our partners at the National Park Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management for watching over our public lands, and for working with family-owned businesses like ours to bring travelers into the heart of America’s wilderness.

The Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is nearly indescribable in words, but I believe President Theodore Roosevelt does it justice when he said: “In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

George Wendt, founder and president of OARS. Photo by John Lyddon
George Wendt, founder and president of OARS. Photo by John Lyddon

Often called “the conservation president,” Roosevelt doubled the number of sites in the National Park system and signed the landmark Antiquities Act and used its special provisions to safeguard 18 national monuments—including the Grand Canyon.

Some years after Roosevelt, two other men fought to protect the Colorado once again. When two dams were proposed on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, David Brower and the Sierra Club got a nudge from Grand Canyon Dories founder and environmentalist Martin Litton. It was a fiery speech from Litton that convinced Brower and the Club to wage an all-out war against the two dams—and win.

It’s because of these men and many more men and women who have continued to fight, that the mighty Colorado still winds unimpeded through the Grand Canyon. But today, the Grand Canyon faces a triple threat of development, diversion and mining and the Colorado is dammed, diverted and runs dry in its home stretch to the sea. For the last three years, American Rivers has named the Colorado among America’s Most Endangered Rivers. This is inexcusable for a landscape so magnificent.

Two out of three of these threats have been dealt serious blows, with the most recent landing March 4 when federal agencies rejected a proposal to turn the tiny town of Tusayan into a sprawling commercial development. If history has taught us anything, however, it’s that these threats are far from gone. But we have a historic opportunity to protect the Grand Canyon watershed as a national monument for good. The Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument would permanently protect 1.7 million acres surrounding Grand Canyon National Park. I urge President Obama to use his authority under the Antiquities Act before he leaves office to safeguard this national treasure and clean water source for all Americans today and into the future.

My journey through Glen Canyon serves as a daily reminder to protect what we have left—because conservation is a fight that is never over. For me it always comes back to the mighty Colorado because what happens here will change the course for all wild places across the nation.

As we continue the fight to protect our cherished public lands and waters, let us remember those who fought before us and continue to live on in their legacy. Let Litton, Brower and Roosevelt continue to be our conscience as we face down threats. We owe it to them and to ourselves to ensure that the Grand Canyon exists as it is, safeguarded now and forever—and accessible to all.

— George Wendt is the founder and president of the O.A.R.S. family of companies. Mr. Wendt is a true pioneer in the adventure travel industry and a proud recipient of the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. His passion for running rivers was born in the 60s, when he became one of the first 1,100 people to descend the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. In the decades since, O.A.R.S. has set the industry standard for first-class rafting as well as environmentally and culturally responsible travel on over 35 rivers and coastlines worldwide. Mr. Wendt started his company to introduce as many people as possible to the wilderness, because in his own words, “we save what we love and we love what we know.”

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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