The Grand Canyon is an awe-inspiring, natural wonder that attracts millions of people from across the world each year – but the natural beauty of the rusty, sun-soaked Arizona rock carved away by the river below is at risk, according to opponents of a proposed multi-million dollar development. The proposed 420-acre Grand Canyon Escalade project, located on the western edge of the Navajo Nation, is to be built near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, about 100 miles from Flagstaff, Arizona. "It gives the Navajo Nation, for the first time, a strong outreach to those visitors to catch the tourism dollars that would otherwise pass us," Navajo Nation Special Advisor to the President Deswood Tome said, referring to the hundreds of thousands of people traveling along U.S. Route 89 each year.
The development will feature restaurants, a lodge, shops, a cultural center and a gondola tramway system to ferry visitors into the canyon for a better glimpse of its majestic, layered walls. "The Navajo Nation Council has not approved the proposed project; it is currently under review," Tome said. "Everything is going through the proper procedures." The development would create 3,500 jobs (2,000 on-site), lay the foundations for $65 million in offsite improvements including utilities for housing developments, 26 miles of paved road, a waterline, electricity and telecommunication access, according to information provided by R. Lamar Whitmer, the manager for the developer, Confluence Partners LLC. "To the locals it will provide jobs in an area where the unemployment rate is 70 to 80 percent, and it will allow the Navajos to share their stories with the world," Whitmer said. "To the average Canyon visitor, they will be able to experience the Canyon from the floor without riding a mule or hiking or being stuck on a raft for several days." In addition to providing jobs, the Navajo Nation would be able to obtain an additional $40 million to $70 million annually from tourism, according to Tome. "That is the reason we are pursuing this project," Tome said. However, opposition to the Escalade has been growing among its detractors which include members of Grand Canyon National Park, the Hopi government and nearby residents.
The Escalade’s critics have voiced concerns regarding intrusion upon sacred sites, upsetting the region’s delicate ecosystem, as well as tarnishing the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon.
"The confluence is part of our daily religious life," Renae Yellowhorse said. "You go there with your heart and mind in the right place, and you give your offerings to the deities."
As a member of one of the confluence area families who have actively protested the Escalade since its inception, Yellowhorse has helped pioneer the "Save the Confluence" opposition.
"It has divided our community," she said. "People don't shake hands like they used to."
Yellowhorse, who defines her religious beliefs as an Earth-based faith, said the entire area is sacred and that she stands to protect it from being destroyed by the development.
"We have been accused of keeping jobs away, but those very jobs are minimum wage jobs," she said, adding that the majority will not be high paying corporate jobs, but unskilled labor jobs that pay very little.
"We are the families who reside in that area," she said. "To tell us this is beneficial, well it wouldn't be."
Members of the Hopi government have also stated they want to see the site left as it is.
“It is a very fragile environment up there,” Director of the Hopi Office of Cultural Preservation Leigh Kuwanwisiwma said, adding that the project will desecrate the sacred site of the confluence, which is visited each year by the Hopi as part of an annual religious pilgrimage along the Hopi Salt Trail. The Hopi Salt Trail is located miles from the confluence, according to Tome, who said it will not threaten or come close to any Hopi Sacred Sites. However, Kuwanwisiwma disagreed, stating that the Escalade’s development will interfere with the privacy of annual religious practices and that its approval would be a willful violation of the intergovernmental compact agreement between the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe signed in 2006. Kuwanwisiwma said he must uphold the compact and expects the Navajo Nation to do the same in order to provide protection to one another’s sacred sites. “I have that responsibility,” Kuwanwisiwma said. “It was a historic agreement.”
The 2006 compact was part of the ending to a multi-decade dispute, which led to the Bennett Freeze. The Bennett Freeze suspended all development of the land near Tuba City, Arizona, after the Hopi government filed for approval to add the 1.5-million acres to the original land dispute in 1966, the Navajo Times reports.
The freeze, which prohibited nearly 8,000 Navajos from developing modern infrastructure, as well as improving upon existing roads, infrastructure and homes, was lifted in 2009 after several decades, allowing work on the Grand Canyon Escalade to begin. Whitmer said there are no listed or identified sacred sites within the 420-acre project site or in proximity to the site. “The only endangered species is the humpback chub, which is [an indigenous fish] in the Little Colorado River, and we will not be close to the [river],” Whitmer added.
Not everything that is sacred is written in a book defined by university studies, Yellowhorse said, adding that many of the traditions have been passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.
"All they need to do is ask the people who live here," she said. "They're asking the wrong people."
In addition to the "Save the Confluence" families, Grand Canyon National Park officials have been critical of the Escalade’s development. According to Grand Canyon National Park Representative Jan Bolsom, the project and its offsite developments pose a serious threat to the park and to the fish species because of sewage and waste-water runoff. National Park Service officials claim the Escalade is the most serious threat to the park in its 95-year history, the Los Angeles Times reported. "They are serious threats to the future of the park," Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga told the Los Angeles Times, referring to the proposed developments. "When you have that size and scope of potential development that close to the park, it will impact our visitor experience."
Whitmer said the park service will not be able to compete with Escalade because it is intended to be a more visitor-friendly experience. “What that means is the ‘visitor experience’ at Grand Canyon National Park will not be able to compete with a modern visitor-friendly facility on the Navajo Nation,” Whitmer said. “Escalade is designed for the average tourist—the average visitor who can’t physically hike, or ride a mule to the bottom, or those that can’t afford to pay up to $4,000 for a river-running raft trip, or have the time to go river rafting for up to 12 days.” Bolsom disagreed and said that the Grand Canyon National Park exists to preserve and protect the natural environments for future generations. “We’re stewards of them for the American people," she said. “You have to ask yourself, 'why do we have national parks?'”
Bolsom said any development as large as the proposed Escalade will have impacts on the area, and that it would mar the Grand Canyon’s grandeur. “It will not only affect the visitor experience but cause physical impacts to the air, water and ground,” Bolsom said. The current visitor experience of the Grand Canyon National Park provides a controlled setting to protect and preserve the land. Another dispute between the park and the project’s proponents is ownership of the land on the western boundary of the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation’s western border was set by the Navajo Boundary Act of 1934. The boundary is set as the south bank of the Colorado River to its confluence with the Little Colorado River, which follows northward to the east boundary of Grand Canyon National Park. Tome said the Navajo Nation has rights to the land above the high water mark based on the act, but the park claims ownership of a quarter of a mile on the opposite side of the Colorado River as its eastern boundary. “I cannot speak for them, but I believe they think the [quarter of a mile] that was reserved for water [and] power purposes somehow was given to them in spite of the 1975 Grand Canyon Enlargement Act, recognizing that the 1934 Navajo Boundary Act gave the Navajos the exclusive use of the [quarter of a mile] until used for water [and] power purposes,” Whitmer said. The old high water mark was set before the river was dammed in the early 1900s, even before the state of Arizona was officially part of the union, according to Bolsom. The federal government's reserve rights for water and power were set before the 1934 act, contributing to the current dispute over the quarter of a mile on the eastern boundary of Grand Canyon National Park, she said.
Whitmer said the project would not interfere with the park and would not be visible to park visitors. The project would be nearly 10 miles from the nearest South Rim viewpoint. At that distance Escalade’s buildings and tram will not be visible to the naked eye, Whitmer said, adding that it would be 23 miles from the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village and 15 miles from the North Rim facilities.
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“Even using a telescope, the Grand Canyon’s Walhalla Plateau and Cape Royal blocks both areas from being able to see Escalade during the day or at night,” he said. Tome said the National Park Service has no voice in what the Navajo Nation, a sovereign nation, chooses to do with the Escalade project in the future. Bolsom said she thinks it is important that the Navajo Nation continues with sustainable development of the area, unlike the Escalade project, which poses a threat to cultural sites and the ecosystem. While the Navajo Nation continues to move forward with the project’s approval process, the Grand Canyon, carved over the span of millions of years, will remain a site that stirs passionate emotions for all those captivated by its natural wonder and beauty.
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