(CN) — Recent legislation by the Navajo Nation has awakened a sleeping giant: Grand Canyon Escalade, a 420-acre tourist attraction planned for the eastern edge of the Grand Canyon near the confluence of the Colorado and little Colorado rivers.
Confluence Partners, a Scottsdale developer, unveiled its proposal for the development in 2012 to national controversy. If passed by the Navajo Nation Council in October, developers would be authorized to build accommodations, restaurants, retail shops, a cultural center and — most notably — a 1.4-mile aerial tramway designed to shuttle 10,000 daily visitors from the canyon rim down to a restaurant and amphitheater near the canyon floor.
Escalade’s opponents include conservationists who are concerned about potential environmental impacts of the project.
“We’re talking about every type of pollution,” said Katie Davis, public lands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Water, noise, light, air, and actual debris in the vicinity are inescapable.”
Davis said “habitat fragmentation” caused by the development could further threaten the Mexican spotted owl and two fish species, the humpback chub and razorback sucker.
“Large-scale development disrupts habitat and has many indirect effects, often unforeseen ones, that would be counterproductive to recovery and de-listing, which is the ultimate goal,” Davis said.
All three species are included on a list of 25 animals the National Park Service identifies as “endangered, threatened, and sensitive” and inhabit the Grand Canyon portion of the Colorado River.
Mexican spotted owls, a threatened species, live mostly in old-growth forests where they face wildfire, drought and starvation. They also nest in caves and cliffs within narrow canyons, but it is unknown if any of the birds nest in the immediate area of the proposed tramway.
“Critical habitat is essential to the conservation of the species for one reason or another,” Davis said. “So even if owls are not present, the area is important to long-term survival and recovery.”
Kevin Dahl, Arizona program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, echoed Davis’s concerns about the humpback chub; its population is limited to six critical habitats, including the confluence. The Arizona Game and Fish Department lists human-caused change to natural river flows as a primary threat to the fish.
“It’s a very significant area for breeding,” Dahl said.
Environmental concerns overlap with looming logistical uncertainties: sewer and water services, electricity and other resources necessary to accommodate 3 million yearly visitors.
Confluence Partners did not return requests for comment. In a written statement on Escalade’s website, the developers say water is scarce in the area due to a lack of funds for building infrastructure. They plan to tap into a “large, self-replenishing aquifer” for the project and then provide the surrounding community with access to the pipelines.
Dahl said using the aquifer at such a high rate will affect the Grand Canyon’s many seeps and springs, precious resources that provide the base flow of the Colorado River and support an array of biological life.
And Davis noted there are also a number of species, especially invertebrates, which researchers are still discovering.
“Each spring or seep is sort of like an island ecosystem. They could exist in one spring and that’s it,” Davis said.
As an advocate for national parks, Dahl also opposes Escalade as a general threat that he believes will cheapen and commercialize the experience of the Grand Canyon.
“People have crazy ideas about making money on parks or on land that would impact the parks, and we’ve spent 100 years fighting those things,” Dahl said. “Let’s tell the developers to go to the Vatican and build a tramway so that people can get up closer to the pope. It’s not respectful of the land or the people who live there and for the people who live nearby who have been connected to that land for generations.”
In 2014, the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved regulations allowing the Navajo Nation to enter into individual leases without approval from the Secretary of the Interior or any federal agencies. Confluence Partners has not yet conducted any formal studies into the environmental impacts of Escalade, but according to its website, the project will “undergo a tribal environmental review.”
Proponents of Escalade hinge their argument on economic relief for locals. They maintain the development will create jobs, bring young people back to the reservation and herald a new era of prosperity and independence for Navajo residents still living in poor conditions created as a result of the Bennett Freeze, a federal policy enacted from 1966 to 2009 to quell a land dispute between the Hopi and Navajo tribes. The freeze completely halted development in the area, with residents experiencing what some have called third-world conditions: no electricity and heat, no running water and a crumbling infrastructure.
Darrick Shorty is a lifelong resident of the area and a supporter of Escalade. In a written statement, Shorty said he was introduced to the project in 2011 after seeing a presentation at a local chapter meeting. He and other family members created Western Dine’ Alliance for local supporters.
“In this project we see change and hopeful prospects for some relief from the extraordinary lengths we must go to live in this area,” Shorty said.
Briefings and other posts on Escalade’s website list support from other residents who live and work on the Navajo reservation, including four Navajo traditional practitioners.
“The Escalade project supports Navajo sovereignty by helping develop a strong and diversified economy while developing skills and creating opportunities for its young workforce,” Confluence Partners said in a written statement. “The project is currently working with Navajo business and community leaders to build support from the ‘inside-out’ as opposed to ‘outside-in,’ which has been the strategy of the federal government and outside interest groups.”
Shorty said the majority of Escalade’s opponents are nonresidents who “romanticize” hardships faced by residents in the former Bennett Freeze area.
“Where are these nay-sayers when it is time to vote?” Shorty said. “Where are their plans to address unemployment and lack of infrastructure for our communities? Where are their plans to fund schools and opportunities for our children of these communities? Why must our community be forced to remain without basic amenities for those nonresidents to feel good about their efforts for the environment?”
The Bodaway/Gap region on the western border of the Navajo reservation encompasses the development site. Confluence Partners cites an October 2012 chapter meeting where members approved Escalade 59-52 as another example of local control and influence.
Renae Yellowhorse, a chapter member and vocal opponent of Escalade, was at that meeting.
“It was very controversial,” Yellowhorse said. “Tensions were high. There was police called in. There was the sheriff’s department, highway patrol and rangers. We were railroaded when we tried to voice opposition. My vote wasn’t counted, because they didn’t recognize that I was a member of the community.”
Yellowhorse is a resident of Tuba City, but grew up in the former Bennett Freeze area and speaks on behalf of Save the Confluence and her family who live near the confluence.
“In 2012, I read in the newspaper that a tramway was going to be built,” Yellowhorse said. “My first reaction was humor, because it’s funny. It’s like somebody saying, ‘We’re going to build an escalator to the moon.’ Then I read more and then came the anger that turned into wanting to do something about it.”
Escalade has attracted a number of adversaries, including stakeholders like the National Park Service, Grand Canyon Trust, current Navajo Nation president Russell Begaye and 18 Native American tribes with sacred connections to the area. Thousands of individual opponents have signed online petitions put out by American Rivers and Save the Confluence.
Both Shorty and Yellowhorse believe the Navajo government has not adequately addressed poverty and other ills on the reservation, but their ideal solutions to those problems are vastly different. It represents a broader debate about the types of economic development residents want to see on the reservation.
“It’s always times of hardship that bring people together in those areas,” Yellowhorse said. “Immediately [after the Bennett Freeze] the government should have provided assistance for all the families that needed housing and the kind of infrastructure that was needed by our people, by our elders, by the survivors of the Bennett Freeze. Instead, all that was entertained is a big development intruding upon the Grand Canyon, intruding upon the traditional and customary land areas. This idea is not Navajo.”
Shorty takes the opposite view on the project.
“We just see the prospects of good that can come of this, and that is our motivation for supporting,” Shorty said,” “We are not villainous, greedy, money-grubbing pilferers as many would have you to believe.”
The resolution includes provisions that waive a portion of the Navajo Nation Code and will require approval by two-thirds of council members. The first hearing on the proposal was pushed back from Sept. 26 to Oct. 10. Navajo lawmakers are scheduled to vote on the resolution in late October.
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