Developers are pushing forward with a plan for a large-scale tourist destination on the Navajo Nation at a place held sacred by the Hopi Tribe, despite mounting opposition even among some Navajo tribal members.
Grand Canyon Escalade, as it’s been named, would span 420 acres near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers just east of Grand Canyon National Park. Its centerpieces would include a tramway to carry tourists from the South Rim to the Colorado River, and a riverwalk.
“Pedestrian friendly arcades will allow visitors to access Artisan Studios and Galleries along the Canyon rim,” reports a new web site for the project, “which will offer not only shopping but the ability to interact with Native American artists and artisans, dine at restaurants with unparalleled views, learn about the Navajo and Native Americans by touring the Cultural Center, and spend the night at a Canyon-side lodge.”
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly signed a Memorandum of Understanding this spring, which paved the way for a collaboration between the Nation and the development corporation Confluence Partners, LLC, formerly the Fulcrum Group. So far the advertising campaign – including the web site and prominent ads in local newspapers – is forging ahead without any formal approvals by the Navajo Nation as a whole and no formal consultations with Navajo neighbors, among them Grand Canyon National Park and the Hopi Tribe.
When the development plans were first unveiled in March, Hopi Cultural Preservation Officer Leigh Kuwanwisiwma had strong words against them: “The tramway goes right into the heart of the Hopi Nation. It can’t happen. That’s all I can say to the Navajo Nation: you can’t do it.”
This week, Hopi Chief of Staff Micah Loma’omvaya offered comments that were more measured: “Initially we’re opposed to it, just like he communicated,” he said. “We just don’t know the details; I think we’re just waiting for it to unfold.” Loma’omvaya said the Hopi people have been reading about the proposal in the papers just like everyone else, but “we need some type of formal approach by the developers or the Navajo Nation.”
The Navajo Nation’s Bodaway/Gap Chapter, closest to the proposed development, has considered three resolutions against it. Conflicting reports have emerged about the outcomes, and chapter officials have not responded to numerous e-mails and phone calls requesting comment.
Duane Tisinigine, the Navajo Nation council representative for the area, said one of the resolutions did not pass because it inappropriately named too many individuals. The one that did pass moves that nothing should proceed with the development until the chapter is formally approached by Confluence Partners, he said.
He said it’s clear to him at this point that the chapter’s voters are against the development, and he’ll ultimately vote according to his constituents’ wishes. As for his personal view, he said, “I am for economic development, but I don’t want them to do economic development on sacred sites.”
A citizens’ group from the Bodaway/Gap Chapter made a presentation to the Navajo Nation Council on Thursday to voice opposition to the proposed development.
“The purpose of their report,” wrote legislative spokesman in a session summary, “was to request for the Resource Development Council to rescind the Memorandum of Agreement President Shelly reportedly signed on February 21 with Confluence Partners, LLC., to develop the project.”
According to that summary, Council delegate Katherine Benally said her committee has yet to receive a presentation from the developers regarding their project plans, and Confluence Partners also deserves a fair hearing.
The Council plans to meet with the developers, Shelly, and the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department at a later date.
Plenty of non-native Grand Canyon enthusiasts are up in arms about the proposal. Grand Canyon River Guides, a Flagstaff, Arizona-based association of guides on the Colorado, has also come out strongly against it.
“The damage done to this marginal wilderness area will be beyond repair and corporations, rather than Navajo, will be the beneficiaries,” complained one GCRG member, Geoff Carpenter, in a letter to the editor in the Navajo Times. “I'm just a bit puzzled that the proposal has the credibility it does, and that it is even being considered.”
Erny Zah, spokesman for Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, said Confluence Partners is responsible for both the advertising campaign and any next steps in the process to secure everything from rights-of-way for infrastructure, to consultations with neighbors of the project, to approval by various cultural and environmental oversight committees and the Navajo Nation Council.
“We understand there is opposition to the project,” he said. “I think what people are forgetting is that a lot has to happen.”
Zah is encouraging Navajo citizens to approach their chapters and council delegates with their questions and concerns.
“We definitely support the plan, but our role isn’t to get in there and force things to be done. That’s their role,” Zah said, referring to Confluence Partners. “We’re in more of a supportive role right now. We wanted to initiate the talks and then from there we can talk about actual plans.”
Confluence Partners member Lamar Whitmer said his team’s next steps will be to continue community outreach and “to get out in western Navajo and discuss what this means in terms of jobs and revenue for the Navajo Nation.”
As for the Hopi Tribe and Grand Canyon National Park, “we’ll get to them after we finish community outreach,” he said. “We’re going to brief the [Navajo Nation] council in a few weeks. We’ll get there. Be patient.”
Whitmer also addressed recent newspaper editorials by river runners concerned about visual, environmental and cultural impacts to the Grand Canyon.
“I know there have been a lot of people in the press indicating this will ruin the Canyon,” he said. “I don’t think trams have ruined Switzerland. If the river was the equivalent of a yardstick, our frontage represents the thickness of the diameter of a paper clip, 47/1000ths of an inch. We don’t think we’re going to have a detrimental impact on anybody, and we’re going to be able to share the Canyon with millions of people from around the globe, people who are hungry for beauty and perspective.”
According to the project’s promotional materials, the development is projected to create about 2,000 jobs, most of them for Navajo tribal members. It’s expected to cost $120 million in the first phase, with the Navajo Nation providing all off-site infrastructure and Escalade L.L.C., a limited liability company managed by Confluence Partners, paying for all on-site development. On completion, Escalade is expected to generate $50 to $95 million annually for the tribe, with one third of the Nation’s share dedicated to rehabilitation of the impoverished Bennett Freeze area.
If all goes according to plan, Escalade could begin operations in the spring of 2015.