Forest Service rejects Grand Canyon luxury village

The setback is just the latest in a 30-year push to develop the rim.

 

“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. 

Developers have wanted access to the Grand Canyon for decades, as evidenced by this 1961 conception of an 18-story hotel that would have been built into the canyon wall.

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

High Country News Classifieds
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.