Grand Canyon Escalade takes a step forward
By now many of us have heard about the Grand Canyon Escalade, a development plan on the east rim of the Grand Canyon just outside of the national park.
A private development group, Confluence Partners LLC, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, first proposed the plan in 2012, which would occupy 420 acres near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. The development’s main draw would be the Escalade, a gondola tramway from the canyon rim carrying visitors to a location near the canyon floor. According to the developers, the proposal also consists of:
• The Riverwalk — An educational and sightseeing experience at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
• The Discovery Center — A themed cultural and historical, recreation, arts, events, education, dining and shopping experience.
• Lease sites for hotels and other services.
• Exhibit and sales areas for local Navajo craftsmen, artisans and jewelry vendors.
Since this project was first introduced, the sanctity of the actual site has been debated. Some say the confluence of these two rivers is sacred to both the Navajo and Hopi people. Confluence Partners states that it has found no evidence of any Navajo or Hopi sacred sites within the project’s boundaries, nor does the National Park Service recognize the confluence of the two rivers as a sacred site for either of the tribes.
The Escalade proposal is not new, but has taken a large step forward recently. Legislation introduced before the Navajo Tribal Council on Aug. 29 calls for $65 million to start construction on the project, which includes the aerial tramway to bring tourists down to the Colorado River, which now can only be accessed by trail or by floating down the Colorado.
More than any other detail, it is the construction of the tram that has raised most red flags. The developers assert that this feature is key to the project’s success. They say that when completed, the Escalade will create thousands of jobs and bring revenue to one of the most economically depressed areas of the Navajo Nation.
The tram is truly the hallmark of the entire proposal, providing those otherwise unable to visit the canyon floor with a truly immersive experience. The project has the potential to create thousands of jobs in a region faced with much economic hardship. Confluence Partners’ Lamar Whitmer noted, “I can’t think of a more deserving spot in the country than these folks, who get overlooked all the time by government officials and politicians.” The 23-member Navajo Tribal Council will soon vote on an initial funding proposal.
During the past five years, the project has faced opposition from the National Park Service and environmental groups, including a group of Navajo called Save the Confluence. Many argue the tram would disrupt the tranquility of the river experience, as well as a sacred site within the Navajo Nation. It was this project that in part contributed to American Rivers listing the Grand Canyon Watershed as one of the group’s most Endangered Rivers of 2015.
“American Rivers is adamantly opposed to the proposed Escalade development,” said Ken Neubecker with American Rivers. “It’s not good for the Grand Canyon and won’t be for the tribe either. The Grand Canyon is sacred and should not be treated as if it were a natural Disneyland ripe for exploitation and private gain. It belongs to all of us.”
Others have voiced their concern over how the developers have proposed their plans. Cody Perry, of the advocacy group Rig to Flip, said, “The developers have attempted to divide the Navajo Nation over the issue of what’s traditional or sacred, versus embracing the economic opportunity. This has made the issue more polarized within the tribe and has distracted from the proposal’s disturbing financials.”
The Navajo Council has ultimate authority over developments on the reservation, but the plan could face lawsuits by local ranchers and by the Hopi Tribe, which also considers the area sacred. The National Park Service could oppose the project in court as the location of the actual park boundary is in dispute.
Navajo supporters of Escalade say the project promises to be of great benefit to the tribe. Many have criticized attempts by non-tribal members to forestall the project. Some have referred to the Hualapai’s Grand Canyon Skywalk, on the south rim of the canyon, as a local success. Here a development on tribal lands has brought in significant revenue, and, in the opinion of some, does not diminish the grandeur of the Grand Canyon.
For those of us here in the greater Colorado River Watershed, it is important to remember that our natural treasures are shared resources that don’t belong to any one nation. The Grand Canyon is one of the most iconic landscapes on the planet, and we all can collectively look after the best interests of this natural wonder. Development projects that border our public lands have the potential for consequences that are collectively felt. It is our duty as citizens to inform ourselves of these consequences, and allow for constructive discourse among all stakeholders.
Dan Ben-Horin is a watershed specialist with the Middle Colorado Watershed Council, which works to evaluate, protect and enhance the Middle Colorado River Watershed through the cooperative effort of watershed stakeholders. To learn more, go to http://www.midcowatershed.org or on Facebook at http://facebook.com/midcowatershed.
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