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Court Nixes Challenge to Motors in Grand Canyon

(CN) - Four environmental groups failed to make their case that motorized rafts "impair the wilderness character" of Grand Canyon National Park, the 9th Circuit ruled Monday.

The River Runners for Wilderness, Rock the Earth, Wilderness Watch and Living Rivers argued that the National Park Service violated its own policies and federal laws by authorizing the "continued use of motorized activities" in the canyon area.

In 2006 the agency adopted a management plan allowing motorized rafts, generators and helicopters in the Colorado River Corridor, a 277-mile stretch of the Colorado River within the national park.

The environmental groups argued that the plan is "arbitrary and capricious" under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), because it violates the Park Service's own policies, including the duty to treat the corridor as wilderness or potential wilderness.

The district court ruled, and the 9th Circuit agreed, that the Park Service can choose to "waive or modify" its own policies. Thus, its policies "are not enforceable against the Park Service in this action," the three-judge panel in San Francisco ruled.

"The policies do not prescribe substantive rules, nor were they promulgated in conformance with the procedures of the APA," the panel wrote. "The court therefore may not set aside the 2006 management plan because it fails to comply with portions of the 2001 policies requiring the Park Service to treat the Colorado River Corridor as wilderness or potential wilderness."

The groups had also argued that the plan violates the National Park Service Concessions Management and Improvement Act by failing to examine the appropriate "type and level" of watercraft in the corridor, including motorized rafts.

But the 9th Circuit pointed out that the Park Service "quite clearly concluded that motorized commercial services were 'necessary and appropriate for public use and enjoyment' of the corridor."

The judges also rejected the claim that the plan violates the National Park Service Organic Act by favoring commercial rafters over private boaters and by failing to consider studies showing that motorized river use impaired the park's "soundscape."

The panel affirmed summary judgment for the government.

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