A Tramway To The Bottom Of Grand Canyon?
A consortium of Phoenix developers has proposed the development of an extensive tourist facility that includes plans for a resort hotel, restaurant, heliport, river tours, an RV park and a tramway leading to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The consortium, called Confluence Partners, proposes a development within sight of the place where the Little Colorado River flows into the Colorado River, a place known as the Confluence and considered sacred to the Hopi, Zuni, Navajo and other tribes. The development proposes to move up to 2,000,000 people a year to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Despite a Memorandum of Understanding signed in February of 2012 by Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and the Confluence Partners, substantial opposition has arisen to the development by Navajo Nation tribal residents, the Hopi Nation, park visitors, the All Pueblo Council of Governors, and Grand Canyon protection organizations. Grand Canyon National Park has also expressed concern over possible resource degradation. Martha Hahn, chief of science and natural resources at the park, said “This area within the park is proposed wilderness. We manage it as wilderness until Congress makes a final determination.”
A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in February of 2012 by Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and the Confluence Partners. Substantial opposition has arisen to the development by Navajo Nation tribal residents, the Hopi Nation, park visitors, the All Pueblo Council of Governors, and Grand Canyon protection organizations. Grand Canyon National Park has also expressed concern over possible resource degradation. Martha Hahn, chief of science and natural resources at the park in 2012, said “This area within the park is proposed wilderness. We manage it as wilderness until Congress makes a final determination.”
Confluence Project Background
The intent of the Memorandum of Understanding was to partner the Navajo Nation with Confluence Partners, LLC, an unknown start-up out of Phoenix. The development, designed to cover over 5,000 acres, is to start off with 420 acres, and the tramway would drop down to the confluence of the two rivers over 4,000 feet below the rim.
Navajo Nation Concerns
The idea of building a tramway in Grand Canyon is causing concern across the Navajo Nation, and beyond. Since its inception, the proposal has fractured the Navajo Nation. On the one side are the traditional families and their supporters (www.savetheconfluence.com) who recognize the sacredness of the Canyon and the region where the two rivers meet. In opposition are those who see the development as a way to make money and provide jobs for an area of the Navajo Nation desperately in need of an economic boost.
Local Navajo who graze livestock and have lived at the Confluence for generations are opposed to the development, seeing it as a desecration of an incredibly sacred region. That sentiment is shared by families that live at the neighboring communities of Bodaway, The Gap, Tuba City, Lechee and Cameron, AZ.
The local Chapters have weighed in on the issue as well. The closest Chapter to the development, the Bodaway/Gap Chapter, originally passed a resolution opposing the development. That resolution was rescinded, and a resolution in support of the development was passed in a very contentious and possibly illegal meeting. The support of the Bodaway/Gap Chapter was a requirement for the Navajo Tribal Government in Window Rock, AZ, to support the development. Four other adjacent Chapters, Coalmine, Lechee, Tuba City and Cameron all passed resolutions opposing the development in 2012.
The confluence area is far removed from the more heavily visited tourist areas of Monument Valley, Navajo National Monument, and Canyon de Chelly. What makes the Grand Canyon tramway development very different from these three scenic areas, two of which are operated in concert with the National Park Service for their scenic splendor, is that the Grand Canyon is a world heritage site, and one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and for the most part, undeveloped.
Surrounding First Nation Concerns
Other First Nation tribes are concerned about this proposal as well, especially the Hopi Nation. The confluence of the two rivers, the Little and the Big Colorado, is very sacred ground to Hopi beliefs. The Hopi Tribal Council has unanimously passed a resolution in support of a tramway-free confluence. The Hopi resolution, passed in October 2012, calling upon the Pueblo of Zuni, Navajo people, and other tribes to which the Grand Canyon is sacred, the National Congress of American Indians, Inter-tribal Council of Arizona, All Indian Pueblo Council and the National Park Service, to join in opposing the tramway development. The Hopi are seeking support for legislation to protect the Grand Canyon and other Native American sites. The resolution strongly opposes “…the development of the Grand Canyon Escalade and will continue to advocate for protection of Öngtupqa (Grand Canyon) and all its elements”. In September, 2014, the All Pueblo Council of Governors passed a unanimous resolution in support of a Tramway-free Grand Canyon.
Regional Concerns Over Similar Developments
Development of a glass walkway jutting over the rim of Grand Canyon has caused big problems. The Grand Canyon Skywalk, a tourist attraction that was built on Hualapai tribal lands several years ago, is located in the western end of Grand Canyon near Las Vegas. Original plans were for the developer to build housing and other infrastructure and improve access roads once the Skywalk was up and running. Due to the distance to their homes, Hualapai employees needed to have housing available onsite. Lack of the promised housing has resulted in jobs, and income, going to others outside the tribe. Lawsuits have tied up future development plans in court as the Hualapai Nation tried to secure the development from the non-native investors for breach of contract. Meanwhile, the area has become the largest and busiest heliport on the planet, with 300 helicopter flights a day arriving and departing from Las Vegas.
River runners who have traveled through the western end of Grand Canyon recently cannot help but notice the non-stop helicopter activity during the daylight hours around the Grand Canyon Skywalk. River travelers will often travel through this area at night to avoid being bombarded by the clatter of incessant helicopter, fixed wing aircraft and river boat rides that are part of the helicopter tours. The real potential exists for similar types of activities to occur at the Escalade tramway location, along with solid waste and restaurant waste removal problems, and a string of new light pollution lighting up the tramway facilities.
This area of the Grand Canyon, as defined by a 270 mile long ecoregion stretching across the northern edge of Arizona from near Page, AZ, almost to Las Vegas, NV, has many managers. Three First Nation tribes and three agencies of the Federal Government each manage part of the Grand Canyon. A cohesive management strategy among the entities was identified in the 1975 Grand Canyon Enlargement Act, the last time the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park were enlarged by Congress. Barry Goldwater, senior senator from Arizona at the time, envisioned that the National Park Service would co-manage the confluence area with the Navajo Nation, as is done at Canyon de Chelly, in part to protect the region from tramway construction. River Runners For Wilderness alerted the Secretary of Interior about this management responsibility July 15, 2014. To see the RRFW letter, click here (RRFW letter to Secretary Jewell).
“The idea of legislation to protect the entire Grand Canyon is a good one” notes Tom Martin, co-director of River Runners for Wilderness. “That far-sighted individuals crafted legislation to protect the Grand Canyon form just this sort of development is wonderful. This is sacred ground to all of us on this planet, and we are following the lead of those Native Americans who seek to earn a living in this region based on preserving the sacredness of the land and interpreting the Canyon for its undeveloped wilderness values.”
Navajo Nation Legislation
In late 2014, a draft was leaked of the proposed legislation for the development. You can see that draft here as a pdf. The draft outlined development of a destination resort on the rim of the Grand Canyon.
On August 29, 2016, legislation was introduced to build the tramway. You can see the legislation here.
The legislation calls for between 800,000 to over 2,000,000 annual visitors per year at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
The Escalade would be built on Navajo Nation land perched above the main Colorado River, with a long, fully visible tramway down to the river’s edge and would include 5,000 square feet of restroom facilities at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The development would also include an RV park, airport, restaurant, five star hotels, a boutique and a Discovery Center on the rim, 4,000 feet above the confluence, along with boat and helicopter tours.
The Navajo Nation draft legislation spells out the duties of the partners, and requires the Navajo Nation to expend a minimum of $65 million for a 20 mile all-weather road to the development location, as well as power, water, and telecommunications. The Navajo Nation would also be required to construct a wastewater treatment facility able to accommodate over 2 million visitors annually. A company out of Nevada has offered to loan the Navajo Nation the $65 million, with repayment of the loan to be made with royalties collected.
A glaring omission from the legislation and tribal consideration is that legislation passed in 1975 by the United States Congress recognized that the entire Grand Canyon has many managers, including the National Park Service, the Navajo and other tribes and agencies. The law requires the Secretary of Interior to work with all the Grand Canyon’s many managers in providing “protection and interpretation of the Grand Canyon in its entirety.” The legislation, known as the Grand Canyon Enlargement Act, required the Secretary of Interior to work with all the managers of Grand Canyon, including the Navajo Nation, to protect the resource.
The draft legislation also makes no mention of two existing Tribal Parks, the Navajo Nation Marble Canyon and Little Colorado River Tribal parks. These parks were created by tribal agreement in the 1960’s and 1970’s to preserve this area of Grand Canyon.
What Can You Do?
WRITE A LETTER!!
This legislation was introduced into the Navajo Nation Tribal Council on August 29, 2016, starting a comment period open until the legislation stalls in committee or is voted on by the full Tribal Council. YOUR COMMENTS ARE NEEDED NOW!!. River Runners for Wilderness encourages its members to write to the Navajo Nation and the Secretary of Interior. Tell the Nation and the Secretary of Interior:
- You support a tramway-free Grand Canyon.
- Ask that Navajo tribal funds be spent on vital needs such as housing, sanitation, telecommunication and water supply projects across the entire Western Navajo lands.
- Remind the Navajo Nation and the Interior Secretary of their duty to work with the Navajo to protect and preserve the Grand Canyon as the 1975 Grand Canyon Enlargement Act required.
You can contact the Navajo Nation by e-mail here: email@example.com
Or in writing, mailed to:
Executive Director, Office of Legislative Services
P.O. Box 3390
Window Rock, AZ 86515
Navajo Nation law requires that all comments, either in the form of letters and or e-mails must include your name, position title, address for written comments and a valid e-mail address. Anonymous comments will not be included in the Legislation packet.
Please cc the Secretary of Interior here:
Secretary of the Interior
Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington DC 20240
Anyone who is interested in this issue should sign up for email alerts at the Save the Confluence website www.savetheconfluence.com to stay informed and find additional information. Additionally, you should sign up for RRFW Riverwires by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with your e-mail address and ask to be added to the Riverwire list.
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A youtube film about Navajo who oppose the development is here:
A film from the contentious Bodaway/Gap resolution overturn is here:
Here is the Tramway schemer's website:
Here is the Escapaders First Newsletter January 2013
Martha Hahn, chief of science and natural resources at the park, said at first blush, her concerns are about park resources.
“This area within the park is proposed wilderness,” she said. “We manage it as wilderness until Congress makes a final determination.”