Grand Canyon Development Plan Stirs Deep Controversy

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Grand Canyon Navajos
Confluence Partners/APAn artist's rendering of the proposed tramway.
A plan to develop 420 acres at the Grand Canyon has split members of the Navajo Nation, the 25,000-square-mile reservation that would host the project. Grand Canyon Escalade is planned for the western edge of reservation land between the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, 100 miles from Flagstaff, Arizona.

Confluence Partners says its $150 million proposal includes multiple features: a gondola tramway from the Canyon rim to a location near the Colorado River; an educational and sightseeing experience at the bottom of the canyon; a themed cultural and historical arts, events, education, dining and shopping experience; lease sites for hotels and other services; and exhibit and sales areas for Navajo artisans and jewelry vendors.

Confluence Partners claims the development would bring 3,500 jobs (2,000 on-site) to the severely impoverished Navajo people. It says the Navajo Nation would earn $40 million to $70 million annually through tourism, Accuweather reports. "The project would be nearly 10 miles from the nearest South Rim viewpoint. At that distance, Escalade's buildings and tram will not be visible to the naked eye," Confluence manager R. Lamar Whitmer told Accuweather. "It would be 23 miles from the South Rim's Grand Canyon Village and 15 miles from the North Rim facilities."

The Save the Confluence movement fights back on multiple perspectives, such as defending the sacred and cultural significance of the area and questioning its benefit on economic development and tourism. "Officials of the National Park Service worry that the project would spoil views from the South Rim if it was built," AZcentral reported in September. "They also disagree over who owns development rights in the area."

Neither responded to interview requests, but both are actively promoting their views online.

Split Support

What do Navajo Nation leaders say? President Ben Shelly, who has personally supported the project while trying to appease both sides, in May said it wouldn't happen due to unspecified future lawsuits. (The project is also under Nation review.) Deswood Tome, special adviser to the Navajo Nation president, supports the project for tourism revenue. Pastor Ellson Bennett believes the project will give the Navajos more control of the area so it can be better protected.

But at this time, more voices don't want the development. The opposition believes Grand Canyon Escalade will desecrate the land and disturb the East Rim ecosystem. Confluence Partners rebuts such claims and says the area is is a busy commercial stretch for hikers and rafters.
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