Legislation revives Grand Canyon development question

Escalade bill leaves opponents scrambling for support, and tribal members divided.

 

A bill introduced on August 29 by the Navajo tribe’s lawmaking body, Navajo Nation Council, is reviving a years-long controversy over development in the Grand Canyon. The bill would approve development of the Grand Canyon Escalade, a $1 billion project that calls for an amphitheater, gondola and assortment of restaurants, hotels and shops at the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers, an undeveloped part of Navajo Nation that many tribal members consider sacred. 

If passed, the legislation would require the tribe to pay $65 million (likely by taking out a loan) to build roads and lay power lines for the development, as well lease 420 acres of land to Confluence Partners LLC, a private company based in Scottsdale, Arizona. The bill’s sponsor, Benjamin Bennett, couldn’t be reached for comment, but his legislation cites an “overwhelming” need for employment and economic development in the region, and claims that the Escalade project would bring in about 3,500 jobs. Navajo Nation would also receive 8 to 18 percent of Escalade’s gross revenue. 

A rendering of the proposed Escalade development on the Colorado River
Grand Canyon Trust

The legislation was a gut-punch to environmental groups and tribal advocates, who oppose the development. They believed they’d caught a break last year, when Navajo Nation president Russell Begaye was elected. Begaye’s predecessor Ben Shelly had been a strong proponent of Escalade, but Begaye opposed it from the start. His election offered hope for Renae Yellowhorse and other members of Save the Confluence, a tribal coalition working to protect the area from development. Although no president has the power to halt the project outright, Yellowhorse hoped Begaye’s four-year term would buy enough time to convince the divided Navajo Nation Council that Escalade was shortsighted. 

But she didn’t let her guard down. Unless the confluence receives permanent protection, “there’s always going to be a threat,” she told me in April 2015. She’d hoped that Begaye’s administration would work with the Park Service — which also opposed the development — to protect the area. 

That has failed to happen. In the last 18 months, the emergence of a longstanding sexual harassment problem has thrown Grand Canyon’s management into turmoil and thrust conservation issues like stopping Escalade farther from the public’s attention. Meanwhile, Escalade proponents doubled down on their efforts to greenlight the project. Now, Bennett’s legislation proposal has moved the development another step forward.

If the bill reaches Begaye’s desk, the president seems likely to veto it. He wrote in an email to High Country News that he remains strongly opposed to Escalade. But if Bennett can garner more than two-thirds of the Council’s support — 16 of 24 votes — the Council can override a presidential veto. 

Whether or not Bennett has that support is unclear. Based on prior votes and personal contacts, environmental groups and Save the Confluence members believe that roughly eight council members support Escalade, eight oppose it, and the remaining seven or eight are undecided. Save the Confluence and the environmental group American Rivers are mobilizing constituents to sign petitions and submit comments within the Council’s five-day window, which ends Saturday, to try to sway the undecided legislators. After the comment period ends, the measure will go before several council committees and could be voted on by late October. 

If Navajo Nation does proceed with the project, there may still be a way to stop it. The Hopi tribe could sue in federal court, since the development might violate the terms of a 2009 agreement requiring each tribe to honor the other’s sacred sites. Escalade would desecrate sacred places “not only for Navajo but for the Hopi, the Hualapai and the Pueblo,” Yellowhorse told me this week. It would also impact river runners, hikers and naturalists. “You don't have to have a religious experience at the Grand Canyon,” she adds. “You can have a nature experience and that can be violated too. Everyone in the world has a say in this.” 

Yellowhorse also thinks the $65 million investment could be better spent — say, by building shops and gas stations on an existing highway that runs through the western part of Navajo Nation, and uniting the people who live near the confluence, rather than dividing them. The arid, sweeping landscape is the kind of place where you see a pickup truck five miles distant and know exactly to whom it belongs, Yellowhorse says. “To survive in such a harsh environment, you have to know you can go to them in times of trouble. We have to be able to work together.”

Krista Langlois is a correspondent for High Country News.