The newly elected president of the Navajo Nation has taken a firm stance against the Grand Canyon Escalade, a billion-dollar project that would allow for commercial development on the canyon’s south rim and run a gondola from the top of the canyon to an elevated walkway a mile below.
The proposed project calls for development of 420 acres of Navajo land with stunning views of the confluence, the point where the turquoise waters of the Little Colorado River plunge into the darker waters of the Colorado River 3,000 feet below the canyon’s edge. But the project has proved divisive not only for the Navajo and other tribes and pueblos that live near the canyon or consider it a sacred site, but also among development groups, environmentalists and the National Park Service.
President Russell Begaye, who took office May 12 and opposed the escalade in his previous role on the Tribal Council, said he will not support it.
“It is not in the best interest of the Navajo Nation and the Navajo people,” he said. “If opinion is divided, we don’t want to do it.”
Begaye’s opposition to the project signals a reversal from his predecessor’s goals. Former president Ben Shelly was one of the project’s biggest champions, claiming it would bring jobs and added revenue to the impoverished tribe. Proponents of the project estimate it could bring as much as $90 million in annual revenue for the Nation.
In a last-ditch effort to push the development forward, Shelly presented Begaye with a written agreement during Begaye’s inauguration ceremony May 12. The agreement, signed by both men, states that Begaye will “carry forth” eight projects “on behalf of the Navajo Nation for the prosperity of the Nation.”
Included on that list is the directive to “complete the Grand Canyon Escalade.” The agreement also includes a handful of other controversial projects, such as a proposed north-south railroad in the New Mexico portion of the reservation and the development of clean-coal technology.
Begaye said the agreement was a “good will gesture,” and that it is not binding. He also claims Shelly added the escalade project to the agreement at the last minute. A written agreement between an outgoing president and his successor is not part of the regular protocol, Begaye said.
“I signed it in the spirit of cooperation through the transition time,” he said. “I agreed to review the projects to determine which ones were shovel-ready. It was his list, not something I was bound to.”
Begaye said his opposition to the escalade project comes from the divided public opinion and from a business standpoint. The Navajo community closest to the canyon, the Bodaway/Gap Chapter, approved the project, but with a very small margin, and residents have spoken out for and against the escalade since it got financial backing in 2012.
Specifically, Begaye takes issue with the price tag. Although Confluence Partners, the project developer, would put up $1 billion for the project, including $150 million for the gondola, the Navajo Nation would be responsible for $65 million to build roads and install power and water lines. The nearest highway is about 30 miles away.
The project, originally slated to be complete this year, still needs approval from the Tribal Council to move forward. Although he may not be able to completely stop the development, Begaye said his administration will not support it.
“First, it’s dividing the people who live out there,” he said. “Second, from a business standpoint, it’s just not good for us. Before we move forward, this needs to be something everyone agrees on.”