The phenomenon of attributing significance to a location, or creating a sense of place, figures prominently in studies on environmental behavior. Researchers define this sense of place as the cognitive, affective, values-based way of interacting with a specific site. This article explore commercial and non-commercial experience of the Grand Canyon, looking at the experience of the Native American tribes that call the canyon home and at our own group's trip down the Colorado River.
photo by Heather West
After our small group had spent 14 days floating peacefully down the Colorado River, the sudden commotion of motor boats, trucks, and helicopters at Diamond Creek shocked us out of our unhurried pace of life. As we watched, one, two, then three bright blue inflatable motorboats roared off into the whitewater downstream. The boats, a commerical venture of the Hualapai Indian Tribe, carried day-trip tourists from Las Vegas.
On shore, a bustling chaos of people and vehicles reminded us of why the upper Colorado River has been so painstakingly regulated by policymakers striving to preserve the sense of isolation that some travelers seek in wilderness. Later, thinking back to the roar of the motorboats, one member of our group stated, "The sight of the motorized trips was particularly jarring--and the thought of the Hualapai day trips from Vegas felt somewhat offensive. I heard a number of students and faculty members make disgruntled comments about those trips in particular."
In fact, the scene at Diamond Creek spoke to a long-standing tension that has existed for years between those with commercial interests and those who wish to preserve what they consider to be the purity of a place. This tension turns to controversy when economically-motivated projects like whitewater rafting trips, helicopter landings, and other tourist attractions challenge the preservation of natural places like Grand Canyon.
Why does the tension exist to begin with? Scholars studying such matters attribute these conflicts to the different ways people endow a physical place with meaning. The phenomenon of attributing significance to a location, or creating a sense of place, figures prominently in studies on environmental behavior. Researchers define this sense of place as the cognitive, affective, values-based way of interacting with a specific site and cite it as vital to informing the relationship between people and a certain place.
Stephen Kellert, Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology and Senior Research Scholar at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, identifies several different ways of interacting with wilderness. These include a wide range of values, from a strong affection to an intense aversion to nature. Such approaches are not mutually exclusive, and one individual can hold a number of conflicting views regarding sense of place. We can interpret something like the Hualapai controversy at Diamond Creek in light of the value system Kellert has created.
The Hualapai Indians are a Native American tribe that has called Grand Canyon home for well over 800 years. Like many tribes, the Hualapai believe that Grand Canyon and the Colorado River carry a sacred significance, and that marring the purity of these places risks depleting their spiritual or ceremonial power. In fact, they consider the Colorado River as the “backbone” of the Hualapai people—they believe that without this backbone, or Ha’yiđađa, the Hualapai would surely perish. This belief demonstrates the Hualapai historical—and spiritual—dependence on the Colorado River for survival.
Nevertheless, the way a tribe member uses the river for survival depends on the nature of his or her value system. More economically-minded Hualapai view the Colorado primarily as a source of profit and thus focus on its material value to the tribe. Kellert suggests that this reflects a utilitarian-dominionistic approach, for it focuses chiefly on the material gains one can derive from nature. Though a utilitarian relationship with nature can be symbiotic, the added dominionistic aspect can transform it into a negative exploitation of natural resources for monetary gain.
On the other hand, traditional Hualapai who uphold the concept of Ha’yiđađa have a moralistic connection to the Canyon. Kellert states that this relationship stems from the belief that the earth is a living and holistic being and can be expressed by reverence and stewardship towards the natural world. Commercial enterprises and technological presence often infringe on this spiritual approach by disrupting the ceremonial potency of sacred areas.
Many tourists, like those of our group, represent a third kind of relationship with an area like the Grand Canyon, defined by Kellert as the naturalistic approach. A naturalistic approach to wilderness emphasizes direct contact with nature’s aesthetic purity and can be expressed through a sense of wonder, fascination, and awe. Historically analogous to Romanticism, the value of naturalism stems from the satisfaction an individual gains from an intimate experience of nature. Here, too, commercial presence with its noise pollution and crowds often detracts from this type of relationship.
How are the conflicts between these different value systems reconciled? On a policy level, legislation such as the Colorado River Management Plan allows tourist and commercial access to the river, but preserve an isolated wilderness experience by limiting boat launches, group size, and trip length. An important aspect of the National Park Service’s Adaptive Management Plan is Attraction Site Monitoring, a program that aims to limit the number of tourists in popular areas in Grand Canyon.
While these policies are effective, they cannot wholly resolve the tensions between commercialism and preservation or the utilitarian-dominionistic versus naturalistic-moralistic value systems epitomized at Diamond Creek. Instead, we must turn to a broad-based understanding of these conflicting values through education. This is exemplified through cultural awareness of Native American traditions and environmentally-friendly, low-impact practices like Leave No Trace, which urges tourists to leave nothing but footprints, and take nothing but pictures. When we reach a state of tolerance, we understand that there is value in every experience, whether it be through the same or different lens. To that effect, one member of our group stated:
"Interestingly, our guides were all very gracious about both the motorized trips and the Hualapai day trips. For those of us for whom this was the first trip and experience, we may have been approaching this more as "purists," seeing our way as the only way--presumably there may be others who could see our row boats as "cheating" and that paddle boats or kayaks are the only "real" or genuine way, so perhaps it is all a continuum of authentic experience."
We found these sources to be helpful in our research. If you’re interested in the issues presented here, consider this further reading: