There's a Big Battle Going on in the Grand Canyon


The sun sets over Little Colorado River at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Kerrick James/Getty Images
The sun sets over Little Colorado River at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Kerrick James/Getty Images

The Grand Canyon Escalade is either:

A)   A bold vision that will open the depths of the Grand Canyon to millions of people who would never get to see it, boost the economic outlook of a proud people who desperately need it and help build a brighter future for the Navajo people, or

B)   A bald money grab by outsiders that will encroach on sacred Native American land and spoil one of the world's greatest natural wonders forever.

That's pretty much it. One or the other. That's how the sides line up in this struggle for control of 420 acres (170 hectares) of undeveloped desert on the eastern edge of Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park.

"It can be described that simply," Roger Clark, the Grand Canyon Program Director for the Grand Canyon Trust, a group that opposes the Escalade project, tells HowStuffWorks. "If one just boils down motives to economics, then yes, it's that simple.

"But what's at stake are values that go well beyond economics."

A Brash Proposal

The proposed Grand Canyon Escalade development, backed by a Scottsdale development group called Confluence Partners, features a hotel, motels, RV park, restaurant, a Native American museum (tentatively, the Navajoland Discovery Center) and various shops perched on the mesa above the canyon. The big attraction, and the most controversial by far, is a "sky tram" that will whisk visitors on a roughly 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) trip into the canyon, onto an elevated walkway (complete with a place to buy gifts, a snack shop and restrooms) near the canyon floor.

Map of the Grand Canyon highlighting the area proposed for the Grand Canyon Escalade development
Map of the Grand Canyon highlighting the area proposed for the Grand Canyon Escalade development
Globe Turner, LLC/Getty Images

At the end of August a bill that calls for approval of the ambitious project — some estimate its cost at more than $1 billion — was brought before Navajo Nation lawmakers. After a five-day public comment period, they sent the issue to committee. If the bill makes it out of committee, the fate of the project, first proposed several years ago, will rest on a vote before council in October.

It's easy, perhaps especially for the cynical, to say that the Escalade project is all about money. And, certainly, there's a lot of money at stake.

For many Navajo, that can't be ignored.

Some 44 percent of Navajo children under 18 live in poverty, according to the 2010 census. The median income in Navajo households in 2010 was $27,389, about half what it is for all U.S. households. (It may be less than that; the Division of Economic Development of the Navajo Nation says it's $20,005.)

In all, 38 percent of Navajos live in poverty; it's 14.8 percent for the entire U.S. population.

The jobs that the Escalade promises — maybe more than 3,000 — could mean a lot in a place where the unemployment rate, according to the Navajo Nation, hovers around 42 percent.

"I want people to have a better life. They need jobs. They need homes. They need good homes," former Navajo Nation president Ben Shelly told NBC News. "A lot of people, they want to go back to the old ways. You can't go back."

But new president of the Navajo Nation Russell Begaye, who assumed office earlier this year, opposes the Escalade. He, like many, questions whether the promises of jobs and income are inflated. (As it is, developers estimate that the Navajo Nation will get just 8 to 18 percent of the gross revenues from Escalade and 50 percent of lease payments.)

All that brings into play another factor often lost in the discussion: concerns about the sovereignty of the Navajo people in making their own decisions. Opponents of the project point out that many of the developers of the project have no ties to the Navajo Nation.

More Than Money at Stake

Beyond the question of money, though, is the mere idea of the ills Escalade might bring; a cacophony of tourists that will wipe out the serenity and sacredness of the site. Besides the obvious visual scars it may leave, the Escalade's walkway is planned for an area within a few hundred feet of the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. That's a sacred site for the Navajo and many other Native Americans.

From Smithsonian Magazine:

For the Hopi, as well as for other tribes, it is central to their origin story. The sipapu — a travertine bulge of mineral deposits with a hole in the center, which lies on the banks of the Little Colorado River a short distance upstream from the confluence — is the place through which all human beings migrated from the subterranean Third World to today's Fourth World.

Here's a picture of the site, too.

The confluence at Grand Canyon National Park, a site that's sacred
The confluence at Grand Canyon National Park, a site that's sacred
Jeff Foott/Getty Images

Former Grand Canyon National Park superintendent David Uberuaga calls Escalade and another proposed development away from the rim the biggest threats to the park in its nearly 100 years of existence. "It is a World Heritage site, one of the Seven Wonders of the World — and that is not a place that needs additional development," Uberuaga tells National Geographic. "It is not a place to be entertained, but a place to come to connect to creation and this experience."

Proponents fire back, pointing out that Escalade is 1/20th of the size of Grand Canyon Village, the main tourist stop on the South Rim. They say they can better control unruly tourists and what they might do — a constant problem in the canyon — with a project like Escalade.

People peer out at the Grand Canyon from Navajo Point.
People peer out at the Grand Canyon from Navajo Point.
ElOjoTorpe/Getty Iamges

And the fight goes on. Even if the Navajo Nation council approves Escalade, the National Park Service disputes the rights of the Navajo to build the walkway and could scuttle the project in court. There are questions about the availability of water in the area, and what ecological damage might occur in looking for it. Many of the neighboring Hopi oppose the project on legal and moral grounds.

"Assuming that Lamar Whitmer and the confluence Escalade developers are unsuccessful — and we have every reason to believe they will be unsuccessful — there's still the issue of what's next," Clark says. "I think if you look at all the speed bumps, if not the roadblocks ... there's a long litany of litigation that's going to occur, and will not be settled in my lifetime."

Despite the rancor, the fight over Escalade has illuminated the subject of the canyon and how best to preserve, protect and responsibly develop it. And that, Clark says, is a good thing.

"I think if we step back and take a deep breath, what happens here says a lot about our character as a nation and who we are as a people," he says. "I know we can do better."