A Washington state man is facing federal charges after he was accused of organizing an illegal 153-person hike through Grand Canyon National Park in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Many of the hikers were not wearing masks and did not practice social distancing, according to a federal affidavit.
Authorities said Joseph Don Mount spent months planning and organizing the Oct. 24 hike, despite park officials repeatedly telling him it was illegal and violated their Covid-19 restrictions.
According to the affidavit, group sizes were limited to no more than 30 people prior to the pandemic. Due to Covid-19, groups were limited to 11. The park also does not allow larger groups to break into smaller ones to accommodate sizes, the affidavit states.
Park officials in Arizona were alerted to the excursion after they received a complaint that at least 100 people were planning on traveling to the Grand Canyon for a rim-to-rim hike. The person provided screenshots from a Facebook group where Mount said people from at least a dozen states had signed up for the hike.
When officials contacted Mount, he said he was hiking with only 10 of his closest friends and family. He then posted a Facebook message in the group telling participants he needed to "back down as trip leader" but was not canceling the hike, the affidavit states.
"As you could imagine, a park official telling me I can't hike the R2R with more than 11 people isn't going to prevent me from doing one of the greatest hikes in the planet," he wrote, according to the affidavit.
Mount also encouraged people to organize themselves in groups of 10 or less — a violation of park rules — and suggested they bring walkie-talkies so they could communicate with other groups, the affidavit states.
On the day of the hike, park rangers reported seeing groups with 11 people or more. At one point, roughly 70 people were in an area of the park.
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“In my 7 months of work … I have never ... witnessed so many individuals traveling in the same direction in such a condensed period of time and space," ranger Cody Allinson said in the affidavit.
Many of those who participated in the excursion refused to speak with park rangers.
"It was obvious they had been coached not to identify with their fellow trip participants," the affidavit states.
Visitors not associated with Mount or the excursion complained to the park. One person said the size of Mount's group was "way out of control" and no one was wearing a mask or social distancing, according to the affidavit.
Another said his hike took an additional two hours because of the "overwhelming" number of people.
Authorities said Mount collected thousands of dollars after charging people a $95 registration fee. He was charged with giving a false report, intentionally interfering with a government employee, soliciting business without a permit, violating activity restrictions and violating coronavirus restrictions, according to court documents.
Mount could not immediately be reached on Thursday at phone numbers listed for him, and attorney information was not listed for him. He told The Daily Beast, “With Covid and everything, people were just itching to get out. ... I didn’t do it for profit. People had already bought plane tickets and made plans.”