It looks like wilderness, feels like wilderness and - usually - sounds like wilderness. But Grand Canyon National Park is not officially wilderness. Not yet.
But it soon will be, in all but in name.Under a proposal released this month, the National Park Service by year's end would manage 94 percent of the 1.3 million-acre park as if it were officially designated wilderness.
"Wilderness" is the highest level of protection granted any federal land.
The new management plan, which would not require congressional approval, would prevent development of roads and buildings, prohibit motorized vehicles and require that more than 120 miles of old roads be turned into trails or restored to their natural condition.
"It's only been in recent times that the hierarchy of the Park Service has recognized the significance of wilderness management," said Linda Jalbert, the park's outdoor recreation planner. "Even though it's a national park, we get a lot of pressure for new uses."
Among the proposals have been new helicopter landing pads, a gondola from the rim to the river, new hotel lodges and even floating casinos.
The new plan could even mean that park rangers would repair trails with less intrusive picks and shovels, as opposed to chain saws and jackhammers, to protect the serenity of the wilderness. It also calls for stepped-up education programs for back-country hikers and scientific investigators. In the past decade, several hikers have died and thousands more have been evacuated because of heat exhaustion and dehydration.
Since 1980, when most of the park was first proposed as wilderness, the Park Service has bought grazing, mining and other private development rights, conducted land-use studies and increased the acreage proposed for wilderness by nearly 10 percent.
The new draft Wilderness Management Plan also goes further, calling for 1,109,257 acres to be designated wilderness as soon as Congress could act. That would include nearly all of the canyon's inner gorges, most of the North Rim, and the South Rim west of Hermit's Rest.
"All the footwork has been done," Jalbert said. "The next step would be to present a bill to Congress."
How far such a bill may get in the current Congress is questionable. Just last year Congress proposed just the opposite - designating millions of miles of roadways in federal forests and parks to maintain access for developers. Under pressure from park advocates and a veto threat from President Clinton, the roads proposal was dropped.
Deb Gullett, administrative assistant to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said she was not aware of any plans to designate official wilderness areas in the Grand Canyon.
The Park Service plan released Monday also calls for 29,820 acres - the Colorado River that flows for 277 miles through the park, and its shorelines - to be designated as proposed wilderness and that studies be done to include the river in the nation's "Wild and Scenic" river program.
The "wild and scenic" designation, which could be made by Congress or the secretary of the Interior, would forever prohibit dams or diversions, such as were proposed in the 1950s and 1960s.
Currently, 39 miles of the Verde River above Horseshoe Lake is the only Arizona waterway with such protections, although environmentalists have called for up to 1,700 miles of the state's rivers and streams to be added.
The proposed wilderness management plan covers virtually the entire park except for the major trails (Bright Angel and Kaibab) that cross the canyon from the South Rim to the North Rim.
It also excludes the few areas inside the park - mostly surrounding Grand Canyon Village and the South Rim east of the village - that already are developed or have paved roads. Those areas, which handle most of the park's 5 million visitors each year, are subject to other park management plans.
Citizens have until July 15 to submit comments on the proposed management plan. More information is available at: (http://www.nps.gov/grca/wilderness) on the Internet.