Canyon mules up for debate

Grand Canyon, AZ – Host intro:
Grand Canyon officials are deciding whether to change the mule ride program at the park. While mules are a historical icon, hikers complain about their impact on the trails. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales has the story.

Frank Bush, who goes by "Poncho", prepares a group of park visitors for the day's ride. He demonstrates how to use a whip, or what he calls a "mule motivator."

BUSH: Once you need it you have your thumb pointed toward the business end of it (whack) and you make some noise with it.

He stands in front of a stone coral at the top of the popular Bright Angel Trail. His handle bar mustache is waxed to a curly point on both ends.

Nobody wants to hurt one of these mules the thing is if you think you can hurt one of these 1,000 pound mules you guys think a lot of yourselves. Do not go down the trail going, c'mon cupcake. (fade out) The mean cowboy's gonna yell at us again.

His orientation is part stand up, part educational and part pep rally.

BUSH: So how bout it you still wanna go? Yep. That's kinda pathetic. C'mon a little enthusiasm. YEEHA! (fade down)

The Barnhardt family is excited to go. They traveled to Arizona from Atlanta to see the Grand Canyon from the back of a mule.

BARNHARDT: That's the reason we came. We were going to Hawaii instead. (laughs) That's what brought us here.

Xanterra, the concessionaire that runs the mule outfit on the south rim, is allowed to take up to 50 mules into the park each day and the rides are almost always full.

But the mules take a significant toll on the trails. They cause extreme rutting and erosion.

(AMBY: Bring in meeting chatter.) At a recent public comment meeting in Flagstaff, Park trails supervisor Bill Allen said Grand Canyon doesn't have enough money to keep the trails maintained.

ALLEN: We don't have the money we need to do the work that needs to be done. We have about a $30 million deferred maintenance backlog on our three corridor trails, which are the Bright Angel, south Kaibab and north Kaibab.

Typically visitors ride the mules up and down those corridor trails. The South Kaibab is currently closed to mules so the park can do a major renovation of the trail. The park recently received some federal stimulus dollars to help with that project.

Allen says it's important to find out how many mules the trails can handle through this environmental assessment. That means possibly decreasing the number of mules allowed in and out of the park each day.

More than 200-thousand hikers also use these trails on an annual basis. Flagstaff hiker Jim McCarthy says the mules should be eliminated until the park has the funding to build proper trails.

MCCARTHY: Hikers cause some erosion too but nothing compared to mules. Mules are what a thousand pounds and they have steel boots sharp we wear nice rubber soles.

Some hikers also complain about the mule waste on the trails. Xanterra has a crew that cleans up after the mules.

Former Grand Canyon mule shoer and park ranger Dan Cook stands with a couple of other mule wranglers at the meeting. They all wear tall white cowboy hats.

COOK: As far as we're concerned the mules are there to stay. We're open to changes. But we're not open to elimination of mules at the park whatsoever.

Cook says the mule rides offer a memorable view to visitors who otherwise might not see the inside of the canyon. In addition to tourists, mules haul supplies in the canyon. They even help build trails by hauling rocks and moving dirt.

Wayne Ranney has been a hiking guide at the park for 35 years and he says the mules are a part of the Grand Canyon experience. But he believes there's a compromise that can be made.

RANNEY: Maybe mule use could be concentrated on one area of the canyon and leave the Bright Angel Trail as a hiking trail. I think of Bright Angel as more of a village trail. That's where most of the visitors have an experience with the inner canyon. If we were to remove mule use from the Bright Angel Trail and move it over to the Kaibab Trail there would be a number of positive benefits that would come from that.

He says most people who ride the mules are sore at the end of a 12 hour ride. Ranney suggests shorter trips.

Whatever the park decides, they hope to have a plan by the end of the year.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales.