The Grand Canyon struggles with reality

  • The domes, a former movie theater, were torn down last year

    Tom Brownold photo
  • Visitor reading signs in the Grand Canyon

    Tom Brownold photo

TUSAYAN, Ariz. - Just south of Grand Canyon National Park, this hamlet of 1,600 people is a model for what federal planners don't want near a national treasure. The main street takes millions of visitors a year past an Imax Theater opposite an RV park, Babbitt's General Store, motels and fast-food restaurants that tourists overwhelm during summer. If they venture off the main street, they find worker slums - battered mobile homes owned by employers like McDonald's and Best Western.

"Every spot that is available, they are trying to put something in," says Mona Youyetewa, who works the desk at the Best Western Motel and lives in a $350-a-month trailer. "There are so many people coming and going. If I wanted to live like this, I'd have moved to Phoenix."

Tusayan is an unincorporated patch of private land - a 144-acre inholding in the Kaibab National Forest that borders the park. It is also ground zero in the debate over how to transport, feed and house the 4 million people who visit the canyon's South Rim every year.

The conflict pits business owners, led by the Thurston family, which founded Tusayan in the 1930s and still owns 80 percent of the land, against Tom De Paolo, a Scottsdale developer. De Paolo wants to build a $670 million gateway village beside Tusayan and its river of tourists. The Tusayan interests want to keep things pretty much as they are, which means they will continue to have exclusive access to the 4 million people who visit the Grand Canyon's South Rim each year.

The Forest Service and Park Service sit in the middle, trying to both contain growth around the canyon and relieve crowding in the park, where tourist cars clog roads in summer and many staff live in aging apartment buildings or in a trailer park shared by almost 2,000 concession workers.

The agencies have spent a decade pursuing three goals. They want to free the park of its parking jams, where, on a summer day, 6,500 tourist cars compete for 2,400 parking spaces. They want the millions of visitors to enter the park through a well-planned and attractive gateway community. And they want to wrest control of 21 private inholdings in the Kaibab National Forest's Tusayan Ranger District, in order to prevent additional sprawl.

In June they released a joint draft plan with two main alternatives: One lets Tusayan plan its own growth, and the second would allow De Paolo to build a village near Tusayan on Forest Service land the agency would trade to De Paolo for inholdings his Canyon Forest Village company controls.

Officials say more is at stake than the park and its gateway town. "Grand Canyon is the economic engine of northern Arizona," says Forest Service Planner Dennis Lund. "If we can get that running smoothly, everybody will benefit."

But things haven't gone smoothly. The plan - the draft Environmental Impact Statement for Tusayan Growth - angered Indian tribes and conservationists for proposing to accommodate rather than limit growth. And it upset those who dominate Tusayan. "The process has been a farce," says Chris Thurston, spokesman for the family. "They haven't considered the economic impacts."

Planners project 6.8 million visitors annually to the Grand Canyon by 2010, and the expected growth attracted De Paolo. For years he's been buying national forest inholdings near Tusayan, while trying to sell the agencies on a gateway village.

A "model community"

When officials began the EIS process in 1993, they asked De Paolo and Tusayan to come up with alternative growth plans. De Paolo was ready with his Canyon Forest Village, an "environmentally sustainable" project he calls the "epitome of a model gateway community," with 3,650 hotel rooms, 2,695 housing units, and a natural history center. All he needs are 672 acres next to Tusayan, and he's got leverage - 2,184 acres of inholdings to trade. If that fails, De Paolo says he'll develop the inholdings; it's a move officials fear.

Chris Thurston calls that a "cheap threat." The visitor projections are overblown, he says, and there won't be enough business to go around.

Thurston has joined forces with businesses in the nearby towns of Williams and Flagstaff, which also fear big development near the park. He helped found the Grand Canyon Improvement Association, which designed the Tusayan proposal that is the draft EIS's second alternative, and launched a billboard campaign against Canyon Forest Village. The association wants to buy 117 acres of adjacent national forest land for more housing. Thurston says they'll also build more motels, restaurants and services within the existing town, to meet whatever growth does occur. "We're taking care of our problems," he says. "Canyon Forest Village is not going to happen."

De Paolo admits his project would hurt existing businesses. But he says his plan addresses what those businesses have always avoided - protecting the area from unplanned building. Canyon Forest Village, he says, gives the agencies a chance to "set a tone for a whole different approach as to what happens in these great places." That, he adds, outweighs "the interests of 10 or 12 motel owners."

De Paolo spent $3 million on a design that, his proposal says, "maintains and restores the natural qualities of the site." This includes landscaping to match natural surroundings, and buildings that use solar energy and bricks made of recycled mine tailings.

De Paolo also has heavyweight backing. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is neutral, but his brother Paul, chairman of the Coconino County Board of Supervisors, is a supporter. And the environmental group Grand Canyon Trust and former Interior Secretary and Arizona native Stewart Udall call De Paolo's plan a visionary solution.

But other environmentalists and the Havasupai tribe, whose reservation borders the park, have doubts. Tribal officials say the draft EIS is wrong and there won't be enough water for Canyon Forest Village and the reservation. Bob Begay, a Bureau of Indian Affairs natural resources officer who works on the reservation, says, "I know development is going to have cultural impacts and effects on air and water quality."

The Sierra Club is equally suspicious. "(Canyon Forest Village) is a scary thing," says Sharon Galbreath, the group's Arizona conservation chairwoman. "Our concern is water and impact to canyon ecosystems," including springs that support desert plants and wildlife. "Any development in Tusayan would have a negative impact."

Dennis Lund, the Forest Service planner, disagrees. "Growth is unavoidable," he says. "The goal is to capture growth and keep it from spreading."

A process behind schedule

Although the agencies appear to be leaning strongly in De Paolo's direction, the opposition has forced him to retreat. Planners are working on scaled-down versions of both the Grand Canyon Improvement Association's and De Paolo's approaches.

Officials began revising the draft EIS in September, after receiving a mountain of negative public comment. But they are months behind schedule. The one decision to emerge is the Park Service plan to improve transport facilities apart from the development proposals. The transport plan, including a light-rail line to run from Tusayan, aims to eliminate most car traffic in the park by 2000.

The new options will be released, with the original proposals, in June in a revised EIS to be followed by more public comment. Lund says a final decision is at least a year away, but he isn't shy about saying he hopes De Paolo will propose a "lite" version of Canyon Forest Village and give the agency another shot at getting the inholdings.

A new proposal must fit new, tighter limits the planners have put on development. It will have to use less water, take up less land and soften impacts on existing businesses. De Paolo and Thurston say they are waiting to see specifics before deciding what to do.

Meanwhile, the agencies are weathering the criticism and holding to their belief that growth can be directed, but not stopped. "If Canyon Forest Village doesn't do it," Lund says, "there will be another development."

Peter Chilson is HCN associate editor.

You can contact ...

* Dennis Lund at the Kaibab National Forest, 520/635-8270;

* Grand Canyon Improvement Association, 602/912-8531;

* Tom De Paolo, 602/991-7930.

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