Will Navajos approve a Grand Canyon megadevelopment?

  • The confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, considered a sacred site by both the Hopi and Navajo tribes, is at the heart of a conflict over a large-scale development proposal.

    Tom Till
  • An artist's rendering of the proposed aerial tramway that would ferry tourists from the east rim of the Grand Canyon to the water's edge of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers as part of the Grand Canyon Escalade development.

    Courtesy Save The Confluence

GAP, Arizona -- For over 50 years, residents of this western sliver of the Navajo Nation have watched tourist traffic zoom by on Highway 89, headed for the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell and southern Utah's national parks. Except for a single gas station and a few ramshackle jewelry stands, there's little here to attract vacationers' dollars. And so, few locals objected in July when the Navajo-Hopi Observer began running full-page ads that blared: "It's time that the Navajo People enjoy a fair share of Grand Canyon Tourism!"

But they weren't prepared for the scale of those tourism plans -- a mega-development with hotels, stores and even a tram. The ambitious proposal raises questions about who has the authority to make land-use decisions here, where an impoverished Indian nation borders federal land that most Americans believe should remain protected forever. It also threatens relations with the neighboring Hopi Tribe and Grand Canyon National Park, highlighting divisions between tribal, local and national decision-making as well as competing visions of the best way forward for a community stuck in neutral.

"We know that we can make money without destroying the place," says Navajo rancher Franklin Martin. "But we have to learn to do things ourselves. I think we'd be gullible to take this offer."

Geographers use the term "Marble Canyon" to identify the western edge of the Navajo Nation -- 61 Colorado River miles above the river's confluence with a major tributary, the Little Colorado River. Navajo people, also known as Diné, have lived here for generations, but until 2009, this tract was embroiled in a land-use dispute with the Hopi that in 1966 caused the federal government to halt almost all development on some 1.5 million acres between the Hopi Reservation and Marble Canyon.

The effects of the Bennett Freeze -- named for the then-commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs -- were profound. Businesses couldn't start; new homes couldn't be built or existing ones renovated; modern infrastructure couldn't be installed. Only 3 percent of the estimated 8,000 Navajo in the area had electricity, only 10 percent running water. The Bureau of Indian Affairs deemed about three-quarters of the housing uninhabitable. When a federally mediated agreement finally ended the freeze a few years ago, the future suddenly looked brighter.

Yet the site and scale of the proposal outlined in the Observer ads astonished almost everyone. From a complex of hotels, restaurants, shops and other facilities on the canyon rim, Grand Canyon Escalade visitors could ride a gondola down into Marble Canyon to a restaurant and a riverside walkway with a view of the rivers' confluence. An amphitheater and Navajo cultural center are also planned. Supporters say the development could bring in $90 million a year.

The proposal, spearheaded by Scottsdale developer Lamar Whitmer and former Navajo Nation President Albert Hale, immediately divided the community. The local Bodaway/Gap chapter passed two resolutions opposing it, citing the spiritual importance of the confluence site, as well as disregard for local decision-making and doubts about the project's long-term viability. Tribal President Ben Shelley gave the developers, Confluence Partners LLC, until the end of the year to demonstrate greater community support.

That came on Oct. 3 -- sort of. During a contentious meeting called by chapter officials on short notice, attendees voted 59 to 52 to support the proposal. Both sides claimed vote fraud, but development proponents declared victory.

"A difference of seven votes is not a mandate," disagrees Deon Ben, a Navajo who is the Grand Canyon Trust's liaison to the project's local opponents. "That just indicates that there is a real split in the community."

"There's the potential for 2,000 full-time jobs," counters Michele Crank, a Navajo tourism and public-relations consultant who is one of the Confluence Partners. "It is my responsibility as a Navajo person to make sure my people are taken care of. Those views of the canyon will still be there. It's just the Navajo Nation will capture some of the revenues as the North and South Rim (of the Grand Canyon) already do."

Despite the October vote, the proposal still has hurdles to overcome, as it navigates several levels of bureaucratic review within the tribe. Local opponents, meanwhile, have created a grassroots group -- Save the Confluence -- which has allied with the Trust, a regional environmental group, to fight the project.

Chapter member Leonard Sloan, whose family raises livestock on the scrubby plateau above the confluence, sees the development as a desecration. "To make a better living, there are things that you can't sacrifice, and this is one of them," he says. "It's like your parents' jewelry or your parents' blankets. This is not something you can sell, because of the traditional values we have as Diné."

Even if it gains the necessary Navajo support, the Escalade still faces an even bigger question: What will the neighbors think? The important neighbors, in this case, are the National Park Service and the Hopi Tribe, which may hold enough legal influence to stop the project.

The boundary between the Navajo Nation and Grand Canyon National Park has always been less than crystal-clear. Many Navajos maintain that the Nation's western border is inside Marble Canyon at the old high-water mark of the Colorado River, as delineated by the 1934 Navajo Boundary Act. But Park Service officials point to a 1969 solicitor general's opinion, supporting an expansion of the park, that the boundary actually lies a quarter-mile from the river. That would mean that the proposed tramway, restaurant and riverside walk would be inside the park, and the Park Service would have the power to stop at least that part of the development. In an October phone interview, Park Superintendent David Uberuaga seemed surprised that the developers had yet to make any formal approach to the Park Service.

"There's no need to," Crank says. "Our development project has no effect on the national park. They run their business, we run our business."

The Park Service has so far soft-pedaled its response; officials say that the decision-making process first needs to run its course at the chapter and tribal levels. If the project moves forward, though, it's likely that the location of the park boundary will have to be decided in federal court.

The Hopi Tribe has made its own feelings clear. In October, the tribal council passed a resolution opposing the project. Tribal members say it would despoil a sacred place: Oral tradition holds that the Hopi people emerged from a mineral dome, the Sipapu, near the confluence. Some Hopi believe that the spirits of their dead reside at the confluence itself, and a pilgrimage to nearby salt mines remains an important spiritual practice.

"The tramway would be descending right into one of the most sacred areas that we believe in," says Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office. He notes that Navajo officials have been prominent critics of a controversial plan to create snow with reclaimed wastewater at the Arizona Snowbowl ski area in the Coconino National Forest, in a mountain range regarded as sacred by Navajos, Hopis and members of other tribes -- and that Escalade developer Whitmer has business ties to the family that owns the Snowbowl.

"When you simply say, 'It's our jurisdiction' and shrug off the Hopi, that's a lame argument," he says. "It's an affront to the Hopi people and government that they've chosen to ignore Hopi interests in the canyon. We will do everything we can to oppose this development."

That will likely require more than just passing resolutions. The agreement that ended the Bennett Freeze clearly designates the Bodaway/Gap area as part of the Navajo Nation, but according to federal law also "guarantees access to protected religious sites of both tribes." The Escalade developers say tribal members -- both Navajo and Hopi -- would continue to have such access. Conservationists, however, believe that the agreement may grant the Hopi veto power over development in such a sensitive area. The issue will probably end up in court.

"We don't know what kind of power that agreement has, but we know the Hopis will have a big say in this," says Deon Ben. After decades during which the Bennett Freeze stalled virtually all development, Ben believes that decision-making needs to be done more carefully, with a stronger local focus.

That dovetails with the beliefs of Franklin Martin, who sees potential in small-scale, locally developed tourism, like the Navajo-run tourist enterprises at Antelope Canyon, an hour away, where visitors typically pay $35 to $80 for scenic tours on tribal land.

"Here we have people coming in from all over the world to see how we live and how we do things," he says. "Most of the visitors out here would probably want to see how Native Americans live, maybe spend the night the way the Navajos used to spend the night in a hogan, or see daily events like butchering a sheep. But building a luxury resort -- that's for really rich people. I'd rather be put back in the Bennett Freeze again than have it built."

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