(CN) – Motorized rafts can keep hauling tourists down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park. The 9th Circuit rejected environmental groups’ claims that the rafts put the park’s wilderness character at risk.
River Runners for Wilderness and two other nonprofits sued the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior for permitting rafts, generators and helicopters in the park in violation of park policies and federal law.
Federal agencies have leeway to interpret their own policies, the court ruled, finding that the 2001 policies outlining wilderness preservation that the agency used in a 2006 river management plan were not binding.
The ruling upheld a district court decision that use of powered rafts and related equipment did not damage the wilderness character of the park.
Plaintiffs argued that because the stretch of the Colorado River that passes through the park is considered a potential wilderness area, motorized raft use threatened its possible wilderness status, in violation of the Wilderness Act.
But seasonal float trips do not disqualify an area for wilderness designation, the court ruled.
Though there have been plans to phase out motorized boating, the management’s decisions are valid, the three-judge panel ruled.
Plaintiffs also claimed that boating activities violated the Concessions Act, which permits commercial services in National Parks.
But the Act was designed to “balance the interests of public use and resource preservation,” Judge David Campbell wrote, not simply to impose restrictions.
The Park Service adequately determined that allowing professional river guides and commercial outfitters in the park would enhance visitors’ experience, helping to realize the full value of the park.
Also, motorized trips reduce overcrowding at campsites and overlooks, and the trips are quicker than other methods of sightseeing, getting more people through the park, the ruling states.
The environmental groups complain that commercial boat use hurts the soundscape of the park, interfering with free public access, but the San Francisco-based court found that the Park Service conducted a thorough analysis of sound impacts.
The Park Service compared motor-generated sounds to natural background noise during periods of river traffic and no traffic and concluded that the noise impact was not significant, especially in light of existing sound from overflying aircraft.
Grand Canyon National Park was designated by Congress in 1919. It covers more than 1.2 million acres in Arizona and includes 277 miles of the 1,450 mile Colorado River.
The Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association and the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association were intervenors in the suit.