The Grand Canyon Under Siege

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 Photograph by John Burcham

Nearly 100 years after it was declared a national park, the Grand Canyon is at the center of a historic development fight. Two massive projects, which could attract tens of thousands of new visitors to the area — and forever alter the character of Colorado Plateau — are slated to begin construction as early as next year. One is a housing and retail development, larger than the Mall of America, that could add 2,200 homes to the tiny village of Tusayan (population: 573), just south of the national park. The other is the Grand Canyon Escalade, a tram that would shuttle up to 10,000 visitors per day to the bottom of the canyon. In addition to the ski lift–like gondola, the Escalade project — which, at a billion dollars, will cost almost as much as the Dallas Cowboys’ lavish new stadium — includes shops, restaurants, boutique hotels, and a cultural center on 420 acres of remote scrubland overlooking the confluence of the Little Colorado and main-stem Colorado rivers, one of the most dramatic and (at least for now) remote areas of the canyon.

“In terms of the overall wilderness and the character of the Grand Canyon, the Escalade gondola is hands down the greatest threat in a generation,” says Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust, a local nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Colorado Plateau.

In addition to the Escalade and Tusayan developments, the north side of the canyon is being considered for mining uranium. Last year a court in Arizona upheld a 20-year ban on mining in a million acres near the park, but the National Mining Association appealed the ruling and a judge is now weighing lifting the ban, however unlikely that might be in the near term. And in 2012, new FAA regulations ushered in a crush of helicopter tours — up to 65,000 flights per year — that take off from Las Vegas and are allowed to fly as low as a thousand feet off the ground.

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“The Grand Canyon has never been exposed to so many threats at one time,” says Sinjin Eberle of American Rivers, a national nonprofit. “This should be one of the most protected places on Earth, and instead it’s going up for sale to the highest bidder.”

Considering all the threats, conservationists like Eberle are especially concerned about the Escalade development, which is planned for one of the remotest areas of the canyon. The developers behind it, a coalition of business interests called the Confluence Partners, say the area’s pristine nature and dramatic vistas are precisely the reason they want to build there.

“Seeing the canyon from the floor is just as amazing as seeing it from the rim,” says R. Lamar Whitmer, a politically connected former investment banker and the managing partner of Confluence Partners. “But the average visitor doesn’t have the time to hike or ride a mule or spend the thousands of dollars for a river trip to see it from the bottom.”

That’s where the tram is supposed to come in. Like a gondola, it would whisk visitors to the bottom in about 10 minutes, where they could hike to the river’s edge, eat at a restaurant at the junction, and take in a presentation at an amphitheater before the ride back up.

The land is owned by the Navajo Nation, and Whitmer and the Confluence Partners have enlisted the support of some tribal officials to back the project. Not surprisingly, the overall reaction in the Navajo community is less enthusiastic, with many upset that the confluence, which they consider hallowed territory, is being eyed for development.

“It’s going into the heart of our sacred and special place,” says Renae Yellowhorse, a Navajo elder who heads the Save the Confluence movement. “We need to stop this any way we can.”

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Navajo officials and the developers argue that the project will bring several thousand jobs, at an average salary of $35,000 a year, and economic development to an area of the country that desperately needs it. But those economic prospects are overstated, say critics. “The local people are probably going to be stuck with low-level management jobs, in restaurants, or as hotel maids,” Yellowhorse says.

Inevitably, the Escalade project gets compared with the success of the Skywalk — a horseshoe-shaped glass bridge, nicknamed the “toilet seat” by rafters, over the western rim of the Canyon — that’s proved to be a tourist magnet, drawing more than 700,000 a year. But controversy has swirled around the project, with lawsuits entangling the developer who fronted the money and the Hualapi tribe, which owns the land. The tribal business that operates the Skywalk even declared bankruptcy before the lawsuits were finally settled out of court. Similar issues could plague the Escalade project.

Environmentalists’ central concern is that the tens of thousands of additional tourists — for both the Escalade and Tusayan developments — will overburden what limited water is available in the region. The Colorado watershed has been enduring an ongoing drought, one so severe that it has occasionally dropped the water level of Lake Powell, upstream of the canyon, to record lows, threatening the flow of the river.

“Tusayan is in the middle of the desert, so these developments potentially affect groundwater all the way over to the canyon, which would be devastating,” says Eberle. “Imagine waterfalls into the canyon drying up.”

The National Park Service, not surprisingly, is opposed to both developments. But because the land is outside the park, there’s not much they can do to scuttle the projects. Official approval for the Escalade project is almost entirely dependent on the Navajo Nation’s elected council, and a vote could come as early as this spring, with construction beginning as soon as 2016.

The Grand Canyon will always attract tourists — nearly 5 million people visit the park each year. But by encouraging even more tourism through these developments, the Grand Canyon is in danger of losing its singular appeal.

“Ninety-eight percent of the canyon is this wonderfully untrammeled wilderness,” says Clark. “You’re out of the sights and sounds of the normal experience of most people, and that’s a hugely valuable resource in a world where wilderness is getting more and more scarce.”