Navajo election shakes up Grand Canyon development plans

How will the tribe's new president handle the controversial Escalade project?

 

“The Grand Canyon is the most protected land in the world,” David Uberuaga, the park superintendent, told The New York Times last fall. “And I still spend most of my time protecting the place. … Everybody wants to make a buck off the canyon.”

Navajo Nation president Ben Shelly is no different. While in office, he’s pushed economic development in the form of the Grand Canyon Escalade, a $1 billion proposal from a private company that would bring hotels, restaurants and shops to an undeveloped part of the rim on Navajo land, 26 miles from the nearest paved road. The piece de resistance would be a gondola that tourists could ride thousands of feet to the bottom of the canyon floor, to a place previously accessible only by launching a major expedition and guiding a rubber raft or wooden dory through 62 miles of roiling whitewater. Once there, tourists could eat at yet another swank restaurant, or enjoy an elevated “river walk” in the place where the muddy Colorado River meets the milky-blue Little Colorado. Some tribal members characterize the project as just another corporate attempt at turning ancestral land into a mini-Vegas, but the way Shelly told it, the Escalade project was practically a done deal. 

Then an election worthy of a Hollywood screenplay put a kink in Shelly’s plans. Last year, Shelly came in seventh out of 17 candidates in the presidential primary. The top three contenders were former president Joe Shirley Jr.; Chris Deschene, a popular ex-Marine; and underdog Russell Begaye. The election started off innocuous enough, but then Deschene was disqualified because he purportedly wasn’t fluent in the Navajo language. A legal and cultural battle erupted, and the Navajo Nation Supreme Court removed all nine members of the Board of Election Supervisors and delayed the election by five months. 

Finally, on April 21, the tribe held a special election. Begaye defeated Shirley 63 percent to 37 percent. In Bodaway Gap, the district closest to the Escalade site, he beat Shirley by more than 2 to 1. “That’s a big margin, especially when you have an unproven younger candidate against a two-term president,” notes Roger Clark, Grand Canyon program director for the Grand Canyon Trust.

Clark and other members of the nonprofit conservation group have been paying close attention to the election in part because Ben Shelly was never actually able to usher the Escalade project through the Navajo Nation Council, the tribe’s legislative arm. A new president and a new tribal council for Navajo Nation are basically the equivalent of a new Congress for the U.S., and any legislation from the previous session that didn’t become law will have to be reintroduced. The Escalade project will have to start from scratch. 

The confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado Rivers, the site of a proposed $1 billion development.
National Park Service

So will Begaye shepherd the controversial project through? It seems unlikely. Renae Yellowhorse, a 54-year-old grandmother and de facto leader of the Save the Confluence group, says that last year, Begaye signed a petition opposing Escalade. The same month, the president-elect responded to a question about the topic in Tuba City, Arizona: “When you talk about Escalade or any projects out there, we need to involve … the voice of the local people, rather than allowing big corporations to make those decisions,” he said. “Yes, we’re trying to create jobs, but we’re doing it in the wrong places and in the wrong way, and (Escalade) is one of those.”

“If the people say no, let it be known,” Begaye added, to uproarious cheers and applause. 

The new president won’t have the power to kill the project outright, but Yellowhorse welcomes the political changes. Escalade supporters say that the gondola will allow more people (up to 10,000 a day) to experience the magic of the inner canyon, which today is visited by only a tiny fraction of the 5 million people who flock to the rim. But Yellowhorse doesn’t want hordes descending on sacred ground. “When (my grandchildren) come out here I want them to see it the same way our ancestors viewed it,” she says. “We were told by our elders that you … come here to do your prayers, you come here to feel the ground, to see the rocks, to get your medicine from the plants, to feel the wind. And then you leave it the way you found it.” 

Yet Yellowhorse’s place of prayer is also a potential gold mine. She’s hopeful that the new president will work with the Park Service to permanently protect the confluence, and find other ways to bring jobs and infrastructure to one of the most beautiful — and bleak — places on Earth. 

Krista Langlois is a High Country News correspondent. Follow her @KristaLanglois2.