The Navajo Nation’s proposal to build a multi-million-dollar resort at the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers in northern Arizona has raised environmental and cultural concerns. The 420-acre tourist attraction would include a hotel, restaurants, and a gondola tramway from the rim of the Grand Canyon to an elevated river walk on the canyon floor.
Proponents of the project say it will create jobs, monitor and protect sacred sites and generate revenues for rehabilitation of the Bennett Freeze area. Opponents, which include the Hopi Tribe and Grand Canyon Trust, cite the sacred nature of the confluence, the threat to specific sacred sites and the appropriate conditions for religious activities and the fact that this is not an economic development plan that was created by or would necessarily benefit local residents.
Tony Skrelunas, Grand Canyon Trust Native America program director, says the organization supports economic development and diversification, but the potential mechanized development in the Grand Canyon is not in keeping with its principles of environmental preservation and would set a precedent for the future. “We’re working with the [Navajo] chapters in the area to develop a community-based economic development plan that is culturally and environmentally appropriate,” he says.
The agreement between the Navajo Nation and Confluence Partners LLC, the developers of the project, expired July 1. A new agreement has been signed, but requires approval from the Navajo Tribal Council before it can go into effect. That vote could come at any time.
The Arizona Corporation Commission lists R. Lamar Whitmer, who was instrumental in the development of the Hualapai Tribe’s Grand Canyon Skywalk, as the corporation’s only member. The Grand Canyon Escalade website named other partners in the project as Arizona Rep. Albert Hale, a former Navajo Nation president who resigned after being charged with more than 50 felonies and misdemeanors for theft and bribery, and former Judge Michael C. Nelson, who was removed from the bench for judicial misconduct in Apache County. Others include Eunice L. Tso, a project management and permitting consultant; Keith A. Lamparter, a design and construction manager; Bernie Propst, former CFO for the Hualapai Tribe’s Grand Canyon Resort Corp.; Michele Crank, a community and government relations consultant; and financial advisor James J. Maguire, Jr.
So far, according to Rick Abasta, communications director for the Navajo Nation’s Office of the President and the Vice President, Confluence Partners has not identified any investors for the project. The Navajo Nation is considering investing several tens of millions of dollars upfront to build the infrastructure for the project. Whitmer has stated that at buildout the project could cost as much as $1 billion.
On February 6, Hopi Tribal Chairman Herman G. Honanie wrote to Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly requesting a meeting to discuss the proposed project. The two met on February 10 and discussed, according to Abasta, a right-of-way issue related to a fiber optics cable and the taking of eaglets. The Grand Canyon Escalade proposal was, says Hopi Cultural Preservation Office Director Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, given short shrift, with Shelly telling Honanie that the project was just in the planning stages.
Kuwanwisiwma maintains that the project would violate an intergovernmental compact signed by the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe in 2006. The compact ended a decades-long land dispute between the two tribes. Under its terms, both tribes agreed to end all litigation arising from the dispute, a step that eventually led to the opening the Bennett Freeze area to development. The Bennett Freeze, imposed in 1966 by the federal government, prohibited any new construction or repairs or improvements to existing structures or infrastructure on 1.5-million acres of land in the disputed territory, resulting in grossly substandard and unsafe living conditions for the 8,000 Navajos living there. President Obama signed the legislation that was the final step in lifting the Bennett Freeze in 2009.
The compact gives the Hopi Tribe a permanent, irrevocable permit to enter and use Navajo lands for religious practices (and gives Navajos the same right in regard to religious activities on Hopi lands). It further states that the “landowner tribe shall respect the privacy of persons engaging in religious practices and shall not observe or intrude upon religious activities.”
Kuwanwisiwma says the proposed resort, the tramway and the platforms overlooking the confluence could reveal the location of sacred sites to non-Hopis and would interfere with religious activities. “The most important thing in the compact is that both tribes committed to protect each other’s religious use areas from disturbance.” The proposed project would be built in “a very significant Hopi use area … where the Hopi people still go as part of their pilgrimages,” he says.
The very existence of the development would interfere with Hopi religious observance, says Kuwanwisiwma. “Privacy is so important [for our religious activities]. Tranquility is so important. The solace and relationship with the environment as you’re doing these religious ceremonies requires a lot of emotional well-being to feel good about it. I feel that that is what is going to be taken away if this resort. And quite frankly I think if the resort goes where it’s proposed to be, we will be prevented from getting access, period.”
The Hopi Tribe would like Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and Hale to accept an invitation to come to the reservation and talk to the tribal council and villages about the proposal. But whether they come or not, “it’s clear that the area that they have chosen is just totally not acceptable to the Hopi Tribe,” says Kuwanwisiwma. “We feel that if the Navajo Nation Council supports this project at the confluence, they’re going to violate the provisions of the intergovernmental compact.”
Should the Navajo Nation Tribal Council approve the new agreement and should investors for the project materialize, the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade project has the potential to become yet another cause for conflict on the Colorado Plateau.