Grand Canyon Expansion: Greater Access to Visitors or a Threat to Nature?

Two major proposed development projects may make the Grand Canyon more accessible to tourists—or, depending on how you see it, threaten its natural scenery.

The Grand Canyon Escalade project’s main purpose is to build a 1.4-mile long gondola tram allowing easy access from the East Rim of the Grand Canyon to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, an area that once would have only been accessible through rafting or private parties, or if tourists spend time and energy hiking there. The project also includes provisions for a riverwalk, a discovery center that is described as a “themed cultural and historical recreation entertainment, arts, events, education, dining, and shopping experience,” lease sites for hotels and other services, and exhibit and sales areas for local Navajo artisans.

The Grand Canyon
This raises the question: Does nature need to be that accessible? Would it still be wilderness? In addition to the human pollution and depletion of natural water resources that the project threatens, opponents of the project are concerned about the invasiveness of the project, which will turn a place of privacy and intimacy with the ecosystem of the confluence into a Coney Island boardwalk. This is not a simple story of the Anthropocene vs. nature or environmentalist vs. capitalist—it is also one of heritage. Many opponents of the project say that it will desecrate “sacred land.” The Escalade project is proposed in the part of the Navajo Nation that had only been recently cleared for development after having been in the Bennett Freeze since 1966, when Robert Bennett, US Commissioner of Indian Affairs at the time, restricted the erecting of new homes, businesses, and reparation of buildings until a land dispute between the Hopis and Navajos was settled. The longtime ban has affected economic development in the area and perhaps drives the optimism for the potential influx of wealth generated from tourism. However, it is a geographical region that means much to many peoples; certain natural features are integral to the origin stories of the Hopis, Zunis, and of ancestral and historical significance to the Navajos. Renae Yellowhorse, who is vocally against the Escalade project and spearheads, told Smithsonian: “My mother was told by my great-grandmother, ‘You don’t go to the rim without a serious reason. You don’t go there just to look. You go there with your corn pollen to pray to the Holy Beings.’ I want [my grandchildren] to see this place just as their ancestors did. The same rocks, the same water. And I want their grandchildren to see it, too. To know the Holy Beings are here.” This is in stark contrast to the Escalade project’s denial that it will be on sacred ground:

We have uncovered no evidence of any sacred sites within the project boundaries or that would be negatively impacted by the project. The National Park Service, which is required by law to identify and protect Native American sacred places within the park, does not recognize the Confluence as a Sacred Site of either the Navajo or Hopi. Final determination will be made after the project undergoes a complete archeological and cultural clearance process as required by Navajo codes and Law and submitted to the Navajo Nation Department of Historic Preservation for review, comment, and, if everything is done properly, approval. If Sacred Sites will or would be desecrated, the project won’t go forward. This is how all projects on the Navajo Nation are handled.

Because it is on Navajo reservation land, the US government doesn’t have jurisdiction, and the proposal must get approval from the tribal council. Ben Shelley, the former president of the Navajo Nation, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Escalade Project, but before he could bring the proposal to a decision before the council, his term ended. He was not re-elected, and despite being the incumbent, he performed poorly in primaries and lost to newcomer Russell Begaye—37 percent to 63 percent— who has thus far seemed unsupportive of the project. On Wednesday, May 13, Begaye officially announced his lack of support: “As for the project, Grand Canyon Escalade, this Administration has already stated it does not support the Grand Canyon Escalade project and that position has not changed; as Mr. Begaye has stated, it is not in the best interest of the Navajo Nation and the Navajo people.” And according to “Calling Escalade’s Bluff,” a blog article that rebuts the Escalade project’s self-proclaimed advantages, the promises of money and jobs for the Navajo community are empty, and the outside developers can expect to make much more: “The Navajo Nation would receive a maximum of 18 percent of gross revenues if attendance exceeds two million (which would mean diverting more than 40 percent of annual Grand Canyon National Park’s visitor traffic to the Escalade development), a figure that would drop to 8 percent if visitation falls below 800,000 people. The outside developers capture the remaining 82-92 percent.” The other slightly less invasive project proposed is Kaibab Village, a joint venture by the town of Tusayan (already a resort town) and the Stilo Development Group USA, which aims to add 2,100 housing units and three million square feet of retail space, along with hotels, a spa, and a conference center, to the north end of Camper Village as a downtown area. It sounds like a similar conception to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a tourist town bordering major national parks, including Yellowstone. Because the development would be on private land surrounded by the Kaibab National Forest, which consists of federally owned forest land, Tusayan and developers require a “federal permit to expand road and utility access to the properties through publicly owned lands within Kaibab National Forest at North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon.” The US Forest Service has invited public opinion (open until June 3) on the permit request for expansion and addition of roads. The website, Tusayan’s Future, urge residents to voice their support for the project in response to the US Forest Service’s call for feedback, so as to not “let your voice be silenced by these self-professed stakeholders who don’t know what it’s like to live in a town with limited housing and amenities.” Tusayan mayor Greg Bryan told Cronkite News that it was “the opportunity to grow a town and to grow our leadership. We are here as a business community to serve that National Park and the visitors that come.” Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski, who is leading opposition to the Tusayan proposal, said in their April 27 press release: “The Forest Service is paving the way for foreign investors to exploit America’s most treasured natural landmark all to turn a profit. The Forest Service is throwing out its responsibility to serve the public interest by endangering the water, wildlife, and wilderness that make the Grand Canyon so special.” This proposal similarly raises concerns about water usage. Dave Uberuaga, superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, told Cronkite News: “They want to go from a consumption of water that’s 400 percent more consumption, and they haven’t declared where they are going to get their water.” Indeed, Stilo Development Group USA has not proposed any concrete solution to ensure adequate water supply. Because of these two development proposals, as well as both the defunct and operational uranium mines in the Grand Canyon area, American Rivers, an organization that “protects wild rivers, restores damaged rivers, and conserves clean water for people and nature,” has named the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon number one on its 2015 list of American’s most-endangered rivers because the Grand Canyon Escalade project and the Kaibab Village project threaten the groundwater supply and increase noise, pollution, and human waste. Despite my scoffing at the supposed impossibility of violating one of the few great examples of American wilderness (Earth’s wilderness, really), both projects promise jobs, community economic development, and claim to do no harm. Yet I hope we heed Theodore Roosevelt’s advice in 1908, when he declared the Grand Canyon a national monument: “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”Tags: