“The Havasupai Tribe opposes the large development…”
“The Hopi Tribe, other tribes, the Park and other groups are opposed to any development in the area…”
“We are… greatly concerned about the impacts to our community…”
“We are deeply concerned about the proposed impacts… on cultural resources…”
“I urge you to fully investigate the probability that this easement will result in groundwater depletion…”
These comments come from the 123,000 letters submitted to the U.S. Forest Service in response to an Italian luxury developer’s plans to bring a resort-style village to the scrappy community of Tusayan, population 558, near the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Last week, partially in response to the “vast majority” of commenters who opposed the development, the Forest Service rejected the proposal. Kaibab National Forest supervisor Heather Provencio concluded that the five-star hotels, spa, dude ranch, “retail village” and 2,100 houses planned for Tusayan “is deeply controversial, is opposed by local and national communities, would stress local and Park infrastructure, and have untold impacts to the surrounding Tribal and National Park lands.”
Gruppo Stilo USA, the developer, said in a statement that they are “surprised and disappointed” by the rejection and “will make a decision on our next steps when appropriate.”
If Stilo’s past record is any indication, though, this isn’t the end of the road. With 5.3 million visitors a year and growing, the Grand Canyon holds unharnessed economic potential, and Stilo has been trying to tap that potential for nearly three decades.
Starting in the 1990s, the Italian investment firm bought up 75 percent of private property around Tusayan, which today is home to a few modest hotels, company housing and helicopter tour companies. Though county residents voted down the Tusayan development twice, Stilo sidestepped that hurdle when Arizona passed a 2003 law enabling Tusayan to become an incorporated town. Locals were on the fence, but Stilo and its affiliates—knowing that local officials could trump the county’s objections—poured money into the incorporation campaign. They even launched a weekly newspaper that ran frequent front-page editorials promoting incorporation.
Still, Tusayan voters rejected their advances until 2010. That year, pro-incorporation groups spent $640,000 to the opposition’s $85,000 in what became Coconino County’s most expensive election. The number of homes stayed the same, but the number of local voters jumped 43 percent. Both sides were accused of voter fraud.
In the end, Tusayan became a town — albeit one divided over its future — and Stilo quickly stacked the new town council. Some council members were later revealed to have accepted thousands of dollars and traveled to Italy on Stilo’s dime.
Over a span of 20 years, then, Tusayan went from a dusty, unincorporated collection of homes and businesses to a company-owned town formed mostly to promote a massive money-making development. And last week, the Forest Service threw a wrench in that development.
At least for now. In her explanation, Provencio adds that Tusayan can submit a new proposal, as long as it addresses outstanding issues, the largest of which is a lack of water to support either the development itself or the influx of visitors it would likely bring to Grand Canyon National Park. It’s a tall order, but given its track record in overcoming seemingly insurmountable hurdles, Stilo might be up to the challenge.
“I’m incredibly happy right now,” says Kevin Dahl, senior Arizona program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, which — like most conservation groups — opposes the development. “But there’s a part of me that worries that about the next big campaign. We thought we stopped it once, by a vote of the people, and it came back. I have to admit that it might come back again.”
And even if it doesn’t, Dahl has his hands full. He’s fighting to protect the Grand Canyon from at least seven other forms of encroachment, including increased helicopter visits, uranium mining, invasive species, air pollution and a $1 billion proposal from a private company that would bring hotels, restaurants, shops and a gondola to an undeveloped part of the rim on Navajo land. The latter, known as the Grand Canyon Escalade, is also shelved for now, since the current president of Navajo Nation doesn’t support it. But as with other threats to the area, a change in the political winds could shift its outlook.
“People think that once we’ve protected a place (as a national park) we can move onto the next thing,” Dahl says. “But there are lots of crazy ideas” to make money from the Canyon. And with annual visitation expected to double to 10 million by mid-century, those crazy ideas are in no danger of disappearing.
Krista Langlois is a correspondent with High Country News.
Photo courtesy Flickr user Moyan Brenn.
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