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Native Sun News: Opposition to Grand Canyon tourist project

The following story was written and reported by Katherine Saltzstein, Native Sun News Correspondent. All content © Native Sun News.

Navajo water walkers, Save the Confluence, are struggling to protect the pristine region at Bodaway Gap, Arizona, the Confluence, on the Navajo Nation, where the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers meet. They walked to Window Rock this week to protest a plan to develop the area for tourists. Those leading the assault on the Dine' sacred area include former Navajo President Albert Hale who resigned during a financial corruption probe and was appointed to the Arizona legislature by the governor to fill a vacancy. Cutline: COURTESY/Save the Confluence

Navajo and Hopi oppose plan dubbed the Escalade
By Katherine Saltzstein
Native Sun News Correspondent

Confluence Partners, LLC of Tucson, Arizona hopes to build a museum, restaurant and walking path at the Grand Canyon with a gondola connecting the rim to the Canyon floor.

Dubbed the Escalade, the project, which would begin on Navajo land on the western rim of the canyon, has met with mixed reactions. Confluence Partners say it will create jobs and revenue for the tribe. But some Navajos oppose the plan and the Hopi Tribe passed a resolution opposing it. Also, the National Park Service does not approve of projects in the canyon and some environmental groups have spoken out against it.

Confluence Partners has set up a website where it describes itself as “an entity formed to create and manage the Grand Canyon Escalade project” which it calls “a tourist destination on the Navajo reservation.”

The website lists eight partners including attorney Albert Hale, former chairman of the Navajo Nation, and now a member of the Arizona state legislature. Hale, listed as the legal advisor to Confluence Partners, described the project in an email.

“Escalade will produce employment and business opportunities for local residents, generate substantial Navajo Nation revenue (an estimated $50 to $95 million annually) and provide an opportunity for the Navajo people to share their culture with dignity to a world in search of harmony and beauty. For the average tourist and those with the physical handicaps, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to enjoy the Canyon from the rim and bottom.”

The museum would educate visitors about Navajo history and culture and provide for artist booths and an Artist in Residence program, he added. The Escalade would take up about 420 acres of land on the canyon floor at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, Hale said. The river confluence is considered sacred by some tribes.

Officials of the Grand Canyon National Park said they have written to the Confluence Partners and to the Navajo Nation to find out more about the proposed Escalade, but they have not received a response.

“We have yet to be notified from the Navajo Nation. No one has contacted us,” said Jan Balsom, Deputy Chief for Science and Resources management of the Grand Canyon.

However, she added “We oppose development on the Canyon floor. There is no permanent development along the Colorado River.”

Development on the Canyon floor now includes a water pipeline and two bridges for foot traffic or mules which were built in the 1920s, she said. And, there are cabins, campsites, a restaurant and a ranger station called Phantom Ranch also constructed in the 1920s.

“These were built before we were a national park. They wouldn’t be built today,” said Maureen Oltrogge, public affairs officer for the Grand Canyon National Park. The Navajo Nation chapters are free to develop their land on the rim of the Canyon, but Park Service officials oppose development in the Canyon, these officials said.

“Our job is to preserve the integrity of the Canyon. Development would compromise that,” Balsom said. “Local groups (including the Sierra Club and the Grand Canyon Trust – a non-profit conservation organization) and the Hopi Tribe have voiced concerns.”

There have been reports that the Bodaway and Gap chapters which own land on the rim of the canyon where the Escalade would be established approved the project but there are questions about the vote, some officials said.

“Development on the rim of the Canyon on land owned by the Navajo Nation does not need the approval of the Grand Canyon National Park but we’d like notification. We understand that local development is important to the Navajo Nation. The Park Service does not oppose development but it can’t be developing within the Grand Canyon National Park,” said Oltrogge.

The Department of the Interior must approve of development within the Canyon, she added.

“You can’t develop within the Grand Canyon National Park. We are responsible for the resources and the sanctity of the Park. We protect the significance and the importance of the Canyon.”

In February, the Hopi Tribal Council passed a resolution opposing the Escalade and recently issued a press release explaining their opposition.

“The Canyon was and still is home to several Native American tribes including the Hopi, Havasupai, Hualapai, Kaibab-Paiute, Navajo and Zuni,” the Hopis said in the press release. “Sacred sites dot the river and canyons, one of the most important areas being the confluence where the Colorado River meets the Little Colorado River. The sacred area serves as a connection to the Hopi tribes’ ancestral past and is home to ceremonial trails, shrines and ruins.

Driven by the lure of tourist dollars, the Confluence Partners is threatening the beauty of this natural wonder While they expect a large economic impact to come from the development, it is clear that the developers value the potential dollars to be made from this sacred area rather than respecting the beauty and sanctity of a pristine location that is so dear to many tribal communities.”

The resolution states that many Navajos oppose the Escalade project along with a river guide company, the Grand Canyon Trust, and local groups formed to oppose it.

The Hopis urge people to oppose the plan and say “construction of the Grand Canyon Escalade will irreversibly compromise this natural wonder for many generations to come.”

Asked about the Hopi tribe’s objections, Hale said “Escalade is not close to the Hopi sacred sites. The majority of their sites are along the Salt Trail within the Little Colorado gorge and their other sites on the Colorado River are significantly downstream of Escalade. The Sierra Club offers a Salt Trail trip. Strangely enough the Hopi have remained silent.”

“The Salt Trail on the Navajo Reservation is our route into the Grand Canyon and is an ancient one used by the Hopis, Navajos, Prehistory puebloans and prospectors,” Hale continued. He added that “our days will be spent enjoying seldom-seen views of spectacular scenery unparalleled in the world.” The Grand Canyon has been inhabited for about 13,000 years, Hale said and “tools figurines, petroglyphs, pictographs, baskets, pithouses, and other archaeological artifacts have been found sprinkled throughout the area. Archaeologists estimate that there are 50,000 archaeological sites distributed throughout the Canyon and prehistoric ruins can be seen along our route.”

“Escalade will be minimally intrusive on the Canyon,” Hale continued. “The Riverwalk on the Canyon floor will be elevated to minimize its impact on the environment. The Lower Tram station and the Riverwalk will use around 3.5 acres which is 75 percent less than the National Park’s 17-acre Phantom Ranch Hotel development on the Canyon floor. The length of the Riverwalk will be approximately 1,400 feet of the 2,977,920 feet of river shoreline on the Grand Canyon.”

Grand Canyon Trust, the conservation non-profit organization, opposes the tramway idea but supports development by the Navajo Nation if it’s done with the spirit of the Canyon in mind, said Roger Clark, program director for Grand Canyon Trust.

He added that the group would like to have seen the proposal come from the communities rather than from an organization outside the park. The Trust believes in the idea of “community-based planning,” he said.

The chapters on the reservation at the rim of the canyon at first opposed the Escalade but later endorsed it by a narrow margin, Clark said.

While he supports economic development by the tribe he opposes “mechanized development.” He would support campsites and improved roads to get tourists to sites but he opposes a “mechanized system” to get people to the bottom.

“We would work with them on development consistent with back country wilderness,” Clark said.

He added that there is a land dispute between the Navajo Nation and the Park Service over some of the land proposed for the Escalade and this needs to be cleared up before any development is done.

Deon Ben, Native American Program Associate for the Grand Canyon Trust, said in a phone interview that “many Navajo families affected by the proposed Escalade oppose it.”

“I’m a Navajo. To have a proposal be this intrusive is devastating. We Navajos are tied to the land. We are supposed to protect our land. Many are opposed to it. Its approach to the confluence has divided the community. It’s been ‘divide and conquer’ (by Confluence Partners). It will impact sacred sites. They say jobs would be created. It’s the same as the casinos. They hire a management team from Phoenix. It’s hard to get qualified Navajos to take many of those jobs. Navajos would be working at low-end jobs. The high-end jobs would go to non-Navajos. There would be some jobs for Navajos, but more for outside people.”

Tribal people give offerings and prayers at sacred sites where the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers meet, Ben said.

“There is a need for economic development but it must be done with what the community wants, needs and can accommodate,” Ben said. “They’re not just naysayers. Families are opposed. They’re very strongly tied to the land. They are shepherds herding sheep. They want to continue their stewardship as Navajo people. That’s why they’re opposed.”

Representatives from Confluence Partners pressured people to pass a resolution in favor of the Escalade, Ben said.

In July, the Bodaway/Gap chapter passed a resolution opposing the project. Then, the Confluence Partners “impacted the community, and worked the chapter meetings and in October a resolution supporting it, passed by seven votes. But the meetings ran without rules and codes. We don’t oppose development as a sovereign nation. We oppose the tramway.” Like Clark, Ben said “boundaries are unclear about where the Navajo lands and park lands begin and end.”

(Kate Saltzstein can be reached at

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