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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...