(The Arizona Republic) - Haze blurs the skies over the Grand Canyon, tour planes break the backcountry silence, uranium mines are making a comeback near the canyon's rim and the Colorado River has lost its muddy mojo.
Add to those threats a perpetually underfunded budget and the picture that emerges is a national park where efforts to protect resources are increasingly compromised, a conservation group said Monday.
In an 80-page "State of the Parks" report, the National Parks Conservation Association analyzed the most serious threats to the Grand Canyon. Some come from outside the park, such as air pollution that blankets the region and future mining operations that could contaminate water flowing downstream into the canyon.
Some threats come from within, such as the popular but noisy air tours that draw complaints from visitors backpacking into the canyon's more remote corners.
Most of the issues raised would require significant amounts of money to fix, changes in state and federal policies, concessions by private businesses, or all of those, but the association said if the problems are left unchecked, the very nature of the park could change forever. Future visitors could find the most majestic views obscured, and habitats for native species could vanish.
"When you look at all of the challenges, you find out that the Grand Canyon is at risk, at grave risk," said David Nimkin, the group's Southwest regional director. "We made a deal when we created the national parks, that we would support them, and we need to do that."
The conservation association is a nonprofit group, founded in 1919 by the first National Park Service director, that aims to protect national parks. It lobbies Congress and government agencies, often to stop policies and legislation that could harm resources.
Although much of the report focuses on the environmental issues, the lack of money is a common thread in each chapter. The report suggests that Congress and past administrations have failed to adequately finance national parks, leaving the Grand Canyon and other sites with too little money for roads, visitor centers, trails and people to look after the park and its resources.
The federal budget provides 38% of the canyon's operating funds, the report said, an amount slightly less than other national parks. The rest is made up of entrance fees, grants and donations. The park also struggles with more than $200 million in deferred maintenance and unmet infrastructure needs.
The Park Service acknowledges the budget gap at the park. The Grand Canyon's is a little larger than most, park Superintendent Steve Martin said. That makes it tough to provide a good experience for 5 million annual visitors.
"You hate to have to bring up some of the realities of what it takes to run a park," he said. But the lack of adequate money "affects your ability to do resource management. It starts to affect your ability to carry out your whole mission."
Martin said the report as a whole is largely accurate and reflects many of the Park Service's own concerns.
Among other threats outlined in the report:
• Management of the Colorado River. The construction of Glen Canyon Dam in the 1960s tamed a once-wild and muddy river, turning it cooler, clearer and less able to support the Grand Canyon's natural environment.
Sediment that once built beaches and wildlife habitat along the river is now trapped behind the dam. Native fish struggle to survive in cooler water, which is better suited to non-native trout, which eat the native fish.
"The heart and soul of the Grand Canyon is the Colorado River," said Dan McCool, director of environmental studies at the University of Utah. "That river is in danger of becoming a sterile, man-made channel, lined with invasive species and filled with invasive aquatic species."
• Uranium mining. Higher prices for uranium ore have renewed interest in opening new mines on public lands near the Grand Canyon. More than 1,000 new claims have been filed in recent years, a prospect the parks group and other critics argue would harm the canyon.
"At least 100 mines that are 20 acres or larger will be operating in and around the canyon in the next 20 years," said Roger Clark, who works on mining issues for the advocacy group Grand Canyon Trust in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Mines also threaten the watershed, the parks group's report said, with the risk of uranium or mining waste seeping into the Colorado River, a source of drinking water for more than 20 million people downstream.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has imposed a temporary moratorium on new mining claims, but an environmental study of the issue has been delayed and only Congress can make the ban permanent.
• Air and noise pollution. Regional haze from power plants and cities hundreds of miles away can mar the views of the canyon, while noise from air tours disturbs the silence, the report said.
Cleaning the air would require pollution controls on power plants. Such controls, under review by the Environmental Protection Agency, would be expensive and are opposed by power providers.
The noise issue has dogged the Park Service for years, though the latest proposal to regulate tours is due out later this year. The plan could include new limits on the number of flights allowed overall, the times tours can fly and the flight paths they can take.
Martin said he welcomed the park group's report, even if it presented an often gloomy assessment.
"The truth is it's such an incredible place, and it's worth making sure we give it the best and most thoughtful concerns," he said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to take care of it for the long haul. As time goes on, parks will become more valuable to everyone."