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Mule Trains Damage Grand Canyon Trails

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK - For more than a century, mules have been carrying people into and out of the Grand Canyon.

Teddy Roosevelt saddled up wearing a black felt hat and a tie. The Brady Bunch rode down with Alice.

And today, another group of tourists will hit the trail.

But these trips into the Canyon could be in trouble because while the mules are iconic and beloved, they are brutal on the trails.

Their hooves hit the ground like a pickax. The hardened earth crumbles. The paths erode more quickly.

That puts the animals in the center of the tension between the National Park Service's need to provide extraordinary experiences for the public and its mandate to preserve the land for future generations.

Now, the Park Service is studying the mule operations and considering alternatives.

The options range from keeping things as they are to a fundamental change to the tourist experience: limiting mule rides into the Canyon.

Many mules

The Park Service is months into a years-long project to rebuild the 7-mile South Kaibab trail.

It is one of the two primary routes from the South Rim to the Colorado River.

The work - the trail's first significant improvement in nearly 80 years - is slow and difficult. The scope of the project is daunting.

Much of the damage to the trails inside the Canyon comes from mule use, said Tim Jarrell, chief of the park's facilities-management division.

"It's pretty simple," he said. "These are heavy animals."

The Canyon is "the world's greatest erosion project," Jarrell said. "It doesn't need that much help."

Since the repair work on the South Kaibab Trail began, mule rides on it have been banned. Now, mules are used only to carry supplies to help repair the damage caused in large part by other mules.

Nobody is suggesting banning mules from inside the Canyon, where there are no roads and few helicopter flights. The animals are the only way to move some supplies from one point to another. They are also affordable and hard-working and sure-footed.

But the Park Service is now trying to measure the effect of tourist mule trips on the Canyon environment.

In 2008, 9,600 people took mule trips, just more than 26 riders a day.

It's not much, but each trip exacts a toll.

Thirty employees work full time on maintaining the trails year-round. Sixty more are used seasonally and part time.

"We are throwing money at them (the trails) because they are so important," said Barclay Trimble, deputy superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park.

A matter of money@

Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Steve Martin knows there are people who love the Canyon mules, who delight in the unmistakable sound of hoof hitting hard ground.

"There is no question some people love the mules, and they are passionate," Martin said. "But my job is to look at the whole picture."

Even standing in the middle of one of the great natural wonders of the world, the issue comes back to money.

The rides into the Canyon are not cheap, but few of those tourist dollars are spent on trail maintenance.

A ride to Phantom Ranch, including overnight lodging and food, costs almost $450. A day trip to Plateau Point costs about $150.

Xanterra South Rim is the private company that runs South Rim concessions. In 2008, it provided 9,600 mule rides for tourists, bringing in slightly less than $2.7 million. By contract, Xanterra gives the park 3.8 percent of its gross, about $100,000.

But the park spent $2 million on trail maintenance that year and says it needed to spend even more.

So, while mule rides aren't entirely responsible for trail damage, their rides cover only a tiny fraction of the upkeep.

"If we had several million more dollars a year, we could keep up with the mules," Martin said. "You have to have money to keep up. If you don't, you have to cut back."

And there are some things in the park budget that can't be cut.

"You need bathrooms," Martin said.

Part of the history

Xanterra hopes the mule rides continue as is.

"The mules have been an important part of the Canyon's history," said Jon Streit, the company's executive director for operations.

"Are they profitable? Yes. But it's a great visitor experience," Streit said. "It is not the most profitable thing we do."

But he knows changes are likely.

"Xanterra will support the park," Streit said. "If it's above rim or below rim, we'll support the Park Service's final determination."

Patrick Hayes, who came from California with his wife on a recent trip to celebrate her 50th birthday, said a mule ride is the only way he would tour the Canyon.

"I would hate to see the Grand Canyon lose it," he said. "It would not be the same Grand Canyon. It's so Western. It's really magical."

The mules, Hayes said, are an integral part of the Canyon.

"I know you need to protect the trails, but the mules are an important part of the whole experience for the people who go on them and everybody else. Honestly, they made every person we passed smile."

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