Let’s not bring Las Vegas to Grand Canyon

Critique of a developer’s plan to haul tourists on a tramway to the Colorado River.

 

Last June I was lucky enough to join a raft trip through the Grand Canyon. The experience was extraordinary.

The river was a cold, clear green, the result of Glen Canyon Dam holding back its silt. A couple of days and 62 miles into our float journey, we arrived at a magical place known as the Confluence, where the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers meet, a place that’s been designated a world heritage site. There, a sweep of layered, multi-colored stone steps away in mesas toward the canyon rim, 4,000 feet above us and less than a mile away. It is a view comparable to a cathedral’s brilliant red and blue windows.

But there are plans to “improve” it. We knew that up on the rim over our heads, a $120 million resort, Grand Canyon Escalade, is slated for construction by Confluence Partners LLC. The plans are ambitious, starting with a tramway to haul tourists down to the river. Once there, visitors would be able to stroll a third of a mile on an elevated river-walk to a restaurant, amphitheater and seating area, directly overlooking the Little Colorado River.

Though the development group is not Navajo, the tribe controls the decision to allow this project. The land in question borders Grand Canyon National Park but is within the Bodaway/Gap Chapter of the Navajo Reservation. Bodaway/Gap chapter members initially opposed the development, but a vote count taken at a later, more contentious meeting reversed that decision. Meanwhile, all of the surrounding chapters, such as Coal Mine, Kaibeto, Tuba City and Cameron, have passed resolutions opposing the tramway and its associated tourist attractions.

What would this development seem like from inside the Grand Canyon? At Mile 62, several days into a river trip, it would be like encountering Las Vegas-style entertainment and crowds of people.  Developers say visitors need this choice because so many are unable to hike or ride a mule down to the river. They also argue that tourists these days are in a hurry and need the convenience and speed of flying to the reservation, and then riding a tram down to the river and back.

Developers have not spelled out the tribe’s share of the profits if the deal goes through. It has been reported, however, that the Navajo Nation will be required to contribute $60 million upfront to build a road and the infrastructure needed to bring electricity and water to the rim.

Who opposes this scheme? Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent David Uberuaga has gone on record as an opponent, citing resource degradation from the construction and tourist traffic afterward. Yet, there is nothing the Park Service can do to prevent it; the casino and theme park would be built outside park borders.

Opponents within the reservation may have some clout, however. The Navajo families known as the Fams, who own grazing rights on the rim overlooking the confluence, are opposed to the tramway development.The Fams have formed “Save the Confluence,” an organization that warns that a “fragile ecosystem is at stake as well as the traditional lifestyle of current residents.”

Additional opposition has arisen from the Navajos’ closest neighbor, the Hopi Tribe. In a unanimous Council resolution, the Hopis stated that they will sue the Navajo Nation for desecration of a sacred site if the proposal moves forward.

Many environmental groups are opposed as well. Tom Martin, co-director of River Runners for Wilderness, says, “This is sacred ground to all of us on this planet, and we are following the lead of those Native Americans who seek a tramway-free canyon as a way to earn a living in this region based on preserving the sacredness of the land.”

Last summer, as we got back on our boats and headed downriver, I looked up at the towering walls above the confluence and hoped that what I experienced -- unspoiled beauty, silence -- would remain forever, untarnished by anybody’s notion of a Vegas-style theme park. Theodore Roosevelt expressed it best 111 years ago: “Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity, and loveliness. You cannot improve on it.”

Carolyn Hopper is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is a freelance photographer and writer in Bozeman, Montana.

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,...
  • ASSISTANT TOWN ATTORNEY
    Town of Jackson, Wyoming, $66,700 - $88,000 DOQ, full benefits. Law Degree Required. Rental housing options available. For a complete job description and to apply,...
  • 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,...