Grand Canyon tram project faces cloudy future

Updated November 4, 2017 - 5:19 pm

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Lawmakers on the country’s largest American Indian reservation have shot down a measure to build an aerial tram to take visitors to a riverside boardwalk in the Grand Canyon, with stores, hotels and restaurants above on the East Rim.

The chances of moving forward with the Grand Canyon Escalade project now appear slim. One tribal delegate who voted for it this week says it has no chance with current lawmakers. Developers have not said what they will do next.

The legislation was opposed by environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts who are trying to keep open spaces wild. At the same time, the Trump administration is moving to free up other federal land for development.

If the tram was approved by the Navajo Nation, whose reservation borders the East Rim of the Grand Canyon, federal agencies would have had to review it.

Here’s a closer look at the tram and development in the Grand Canyon region:

End to Navajo legislation

Developers proposed the multimillion-dollar aerial tram as an economic savior, with up to 3,500 jobs for the reservation where unemployment hovers around 50 percent. Visitors would board gondolas from the East Rim to a 1,400-foot boardwalk near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, a site that tribes say is sacred.

Navajo lawmakers won’t take up the same legislation again. A new measure could be introduced and moved through Tribal Council committees, but it appears unlikely. The reservation has an election next year, and Navajo President Russell Begaye says he won’t support any agreement for the project.

What’s next?

The Scottsdale-based developers, Confluence Partners LLC, have not responded to repeated messages from The Associated Press about their next move.

Former Navajo President Ben Shelly, whose administration negotiated the project, said Thursday that developers should be more visible in tribal communities and better educate people if they want another shot.

“Don’t just leave everything and say it’s dead and gone,” he said. “Next year’s an election. A lot of people will be campaigning, a lot of people will be talking.”

Opponents say they will remain vigilant while eyeing other possibilities for economic development.

“We never said we were against economic development but, please, not in our sacred space,” activist Renae Yellowhorse said.

Need for economic development

The aerial tram was proposed in a remote area where the federal government banned construction for more than 40 years because of a now-resolved land dispute between the Navajos and their Hopi neighbors.

Navajos hold grazing permits and home site leases but no one lives at the East Rim of the Grand Canyon. It has no running water or electricity.

The tribe will be hit hard with the expected 2019 closure of the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station and its supply mine, which employ many on the reservation.

Tribal Delegate Leonard Tsosie said he considered those revenue losses in voting for the project this week.

“It’s fun to protest and it’s fun to say we don’t want these developments, but I think in reality, if we don’t raise money to replace the loss from NGS, we are going to be hurting,” he said Thursday.

Yellowhorse says the tribe can take advantage of tourist traffic with motels, truck stops and the reservation’s natural features.

“The possibilities are endless once the community starts the healing and once they work together,” she said.

Significance to tribes

Tram developers told Navajo lawmakers they knew of no sacred sites at the East Rim but pledged to protect traditional cultural properties.

Hopis say they make pilgrimages near the confluence of the rivers as part of a ritual initiation for young men, keep religious shrines and gather agave plants. Zuni Pueblo leaders say the area warrants special protection.

A group of Navajo medicine people said development would harm the sacred qualities of the confluence, rendering ceremonies meant to cure illness less effective.

Lamar Whitmer of Confluence Partners said earlier this month that developers moved the boardwalk away from the rivers to ease concerns and wondered how sharing the area with the world would affect it.

“It doesn’t,” he said. “It makes the site more special because you’re telling people why it’s special.”

Grand Canyon tourism beyond national park

Developers used estimates from Grand Canyon National Park tourism to anticipate the popularity of the aerial tram. Nearly 6 million people visit the park each year.

On the west end of the Grand Canyon, the Hualapai Tribe operates a horseshoe-shaped glass bridge along its stretch of the natural wonder. It gets 1 million tourists a year, mostly though bus tours booked out of Las Vegas.

The Havasupai reservation, deep in a gorge off the Grand Canyon, also draws tourists with its blue-green waterfalls. Its campgrounds in the village of Supai are booked months in advance.

The small town of Tusayan outside the South Rim entrance is voting next week on a proposed increase to building heights that would lead to homes, more hotels and retail shops.

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