If you ask bestselling author Kevin Fedarko about threats to the Grand Canyon, whose length he’s hiked for an in-progress book, you’re going to get a lengthy and alarming answer.
It turns out that there are many threats to the Grand Canyon, carved over 6 million years. Teddy Roosevelt, who first designated it a national monument in 1908, said of it, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”
Welp, men are trying to mar it. And anyone who cares about the fate of America’s deserts will want to hear what Fedarko has to say about the Grand Canyon in his keynote talk — “Beneath the River of Shooting Stars: Beauty, Hardship, and Grace in the Grand Canyon” — at the Waterston Desert Writing Prize ceremony. The sold-out event takes place Thursday at the High Desert Museum in Bend.
“They’ve asked me to come up and speak about the Grand Canyon, which a landscape that I have a kind of extended relationship with. It goes back many years,” Fedarko said. “It’s the kind of place that I’ve written about and tried to move on from at various points. And I find myself continuously pulled back to for a whole variety of reasons.”
Fedarko, who live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, wrote the 2014 bestseller “The Emerald Mile,” about a risky, record-setting boat trip down the Colorado River through the canyon in the early ‘80s. Now he’s at work on a book about hiking 800 miles through the canyon, which he did with friend and National Geographic photographer Pete McBride.
“We spent actually a little more than a year on a kind of extended hike from one end of the Grand Canyon to the other,” Fedarko said, adding that there’s little in the way of trails.
“There is a network of trails in the canyon, but it’s very sporadic. You can hike on trails for about the 15% of the way on the south side of the Colorado River, less than 5% of the way on the north side,” he explained.
It’s one of the most heavily visited national parks, he noted, and its visage is instantly recognizable to any U.S. citizen, even if you’ve never been there.
“We’ve all been saturated with images of those rock walls and what the chasm looks like,” he said. “But it’s also a place that the interior receives very little traffic. Only a handful of people venture out beyond the main trails, and so it has this kind of paradoxical quality where it’s incredibly well-recognized and universally known, but it’s very, very poorly understood by the majority of Americans.”
And that chasm has widening problems.
“It’s not overstating things to say that the canyon is literally surrounded by threats on every cardinal point on the compass, and those threats extend into the 3-dimentional realm, because they include the sky above and the ground below,” Fedarko said.
There’s a proposed tramway from the rim to a point along the bottom known as The Confluence, “which would be capable of delivering about 10,000 people per day to an area that receives very, very limited visitation,” he said.
That’s on the eastern side of the canyon. The western side of the park is known as Helicopter Alley for the skies are saturated with as many as 500 helicopter flights per day, “which has an enormous deleterious effect on the soundscape, which is one of the canyon’s least appreciated and most fragile treasures,” Fedarko said.
Then there’s the uranium mines, which threatens area aquifers, and hoo boy, an Italian company that wants to build an entertainment complex and suite of hotels on the South Rim, even though there’s not an adequate water supply, among myriad other reasons it shouldn’t happen.
“One of the truths underlying all of those threats and links them together is that they reveal that many of us think of our national parks as kind of landscapes that are sacrosanct and inviolable and protected for all eternity by virtue of being national parks,” he said, “and that’s just not the case.”
Thursday’s event will also feature a reception and the award for the 2022 Waterston Desert Writing Prize, which was judged by Oregon State University MFA author Raquel Gutiérrez.
Caroline Tracey, who won this year’s prize for “SALT LAKES,” a collection of 18 essays offering a queer perspective on climate change in arid environments, will read at the event.