If developers and the Navajo Nation president get their way, raft trips down the Grand Canyon could pass by a new landmark near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers: A riverside restaurant and amphitheater, along with a gondola that hauls visitors up and down 3,300 vertical feet down from the canyon rim.
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and a Phoenix-based developer have agreed to begin a feasibility study for a $120 million project that would build a visitor village on a remote, undeveloped area on the Grand Canyon’s East Rim. The project has met opposition from several groups, for environmental, historical, spiritual, and aesthetic reasons.
Nikki Cooley, president of the Grand Canyon River Guides Association (GCRG) and member of the Navajo Nation, says the project is a preposterous idea that will permanently alter one of the seven natural Wonders of the World, and that, furthermore, was not carefully discussed with Navajo tribe members.
“It raises serious questions about the impact of up to three million visitors a year to an area that is remote, ecologically sensitive, and sacred to numerous tribes,” Cooley says. “Those questions include irrevocable changes to the viewscape, water issues, sanitation questions, potential impacts to endangered species and the fragile ecosystem of the area, trash, light and noise pollution, and the list goes on.”
The project would initially include a tramway from the East Rim of the Grand Canyon, at the currently undeveloped area about 35 miles west of Tuba City, Arizona. Confluence Partners, the developer, says the tramway’s estimated three million passengers would bring jobs and an economic boost to the struggling Bodaway Gap area of the Navajo Nation — as many as 2,000 positions and $50 million to $95 million a year.
In 2009, President Obama signed a repeal of the Bennett Freeze, a ban imposed in 1966 that prevented the Navajo from developing a 1.5 million-acre area for 40 years, a block that left the area lagging behind the rest of the reservation. Obama’s move allows developers to step in and propose projects such as the Escalade.
The Bodaway/Gap Chapter of the Navajo Nation, which has jurisdiction over the land on the canyon rim, opposes the development and has passed several resolutions officially protesting the project. The Hopi Tribe says the tramway would interfere with the Hopi Salt Trail, a traditional route marked by petroglyphs and offering places, which ends at the confluence. There is also a dispute as to who owns the land at the confluence of the rivers, where the tramway would end; the National Park Service and the BLM say it’s federal land under their jurisdiction, while Navajo Nation and the developers claim they own it. Environmental concerns include the effects of treating water and disposing of wastewater and the impact on the endangered humpback chub in the Little Colorado River, which is off-limits to boaters.
Confluence Partners touts the tramway as a way to “provide a unique and unmatched ability for the casual tourist to actually visit the canyon floor and the Colorado River,” which would be a first in a wild area historically only accessible by foot, mule, or boat. (Helicopter tours are prohibited from landing inside park boundaries.)
The GCRG disagrees. “Resort plans include development on the floor of Grand Canyon, which would mean that it would either be located on or directly adjacent to a federally proposed wilderness area,” Cooley says. “And let’s face it, the gorgeous, natural view of the Little Colorado River Confluence would be marred forever by the plans of a few men who want to fatten their own wallets.”
Development on the bottom of the canyon would include an 1,100-foot-long elevated river walk, a restaurant and amphitheater. Development on the East Rim would include:
Lodge/restaurant with 250 to 300 rooms
Parking lot with up 1,200 spaces
Museum/visitor center/cultural center
Motels and restaurants
Infrastructure (offices, wastewater treatment plant, gas station, etc.)
Calls and e-mails to the office of Navajo President Ben Shelly were not returned.