Hualapai Nation plans ambitious development at Grand Canyon


GRAND CANYON WEST, Arizona — Eight dazed tourists pile out of a souped-up Hummer and file through a ranch gate. They stand, hesitant, taking in the mock storefronts of this "old West" town, still under construction, and its movie-set backdrop: the purple and red cliffs of the Grand Canyon in the light of late afternoon.

Then they’re swept away by a cowboy wearing a wide smile. "Let’s play some games!" he says. Within minutes, the tourists are throwing hatchets and roping a "steer," a bale of hay festooned with a black plastic cow mask. And they’re off to browse the gift shop before climbing into the Hummer for the three-hour drive back to Las Vegas.

These tourists are the next great hope for the Hualapai Nation, whose 1,500 members have long struggled to overcome the stereotypical ills of Indian Country: poverty, alcoholism, unemployment and hopelessness. Tribal leaders are banking on the universal appeal of the Grand Canyon to draw visitors to their remote part of northwest Arizona.

Sheri YellowHawk, CEO of the tribe’s business arm, says she hopes the tribe’s commercial success will spark a transformation on the reservation, with the increased revenues used to fund needed social services. "The people need to see change in order to change themselves," she says. But even as the Hualapai try to push their way out of poverty, they’re facing a tough fight for a piece of the river at the Grand Canyon’s heart.

Glitz comes to the reservation

When the tribe opened Grand Canyon West in February 1988, it wasn’t much to look at. "They bladed a dirt runway and took (tourists out in) a van, and they sat freezing at Guano Point and ate a meal out there," says YellowHawk.

But the number of tourists has grown steadily since then, lured by opportunities unavailable within the bounds of the national park: helicopter tours that land inside the canyon and one-day river-rafting trips. The tribe gets a cut of the proceeds.

Now, tribal leaders are hoping that, with the addition of a little glitz — a little excitement — they can turn Grand Canyon West into a world-class destination that draws at least a million visitors annually.

The tribe has joined forces with a Las Vegas businessman to build the Skywalk, a horseshoe-shaped glass-bottomed walkway that will jut 70 feet from the canyon walls. Starting this summer, tourists will pay $25 apiece to walk out on the cantilevered marvel and look down 4,000 feet to the Colorado River. There will also be a restaurant, an Indian village and a Mexican town; eventually, the tribe plans to add an RV park, a gas station, a small grocery store and a tram to the canyon floor.

Tribal leaders hope those attractions will bring in more tourists, eager to pay hundreds of dollars each for the helicopter tours and river trips. But some tribal members say that the project sacrifices the very beauty that draws tourists to the area. Clay Bravo, the assistant director of the tribe’s Department of Natural Resources, says he’s concerned the tribe is developing Grand Canyon West without the benefit of comprehensive planning: "There needs to be a balance between economic development and protection of natural resources. I don’t believe this is a balanced project."

The project has also drawn criticism from other river users. "You can’t blame them for wanting to increase the profitability of their natural assets," says Jo Johnson of River Runners for Wilderness. But, she says of their development plans, "you’re looking at Disneyland."

A harder line

Now the tribe faces a more serious challenge to its plans. In December, the Park Service released its final Colorado River Management Plan, which prohibits the Hualapai from running commercial jet boat tours, and limits their river-running concession to no more than 600 passengers per day (HCN, 1/23/06: Colorado River gets a recreation plan).

Tribal leaders say that restriction violates their aboriginal rights. The Hualapai maintain that they have lived alongside the river since time immemorial and that their reservation extends to the river’s center; therefore, they say, the federal government may not regulate their use of the river.

The government, however, says the reservation’s boundary lies on the river’s south bank. "The river is within Grand Canyon National Park," says Jeff Cross of the Park’s Science Center. "We’ve always had jurisdiction over it."

The Hualapai are not the only people who feel passionately about the Grand Canyon and the river. For decades, the tribe has been out-shouted by commercial river-runners, private boaters and environmentalists, all trying to influence the management of this American icon.

But tribal chairman Charlie Vaughn, who was elected in 2004, has been more aggressive about asserting the Hualapais’ aboriginal rights. He ended a cooperative agreement with the park to manage the river corridor along the edge of the reservation, and has requested an audience with Interior Secretary Gale Norton to resolve the boundary dispute. Vaughn says he’s prepared to press the tribe’s case in court if necessary.

"The tribe was much too accommodating for the National Park Service," he says. Vaughn has also called for the federal government to grant the Hualapai water rights in the already over-allocated Colorado.

In the meantime, he says, his tribe should be able to do what it wants on its land and on the river — even if it looks like Disneyland to outsiders. "We’re the ones who are going to have to live with this, we’re the ones who are going to be here forever," he says. "We have to be able to chart our own destiny."

The author is a former HCN intern.