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Controversial Grand Canyon Gondola Grounded for a Year

The Grand Canyon Escalade, a controversial tourist attraction proposed for the Navajo side of the Grand Canyon has been delayed by a year.
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A tourist attraction proposed for the Navajo side of the Grand Canyon has been delayed by a year, because the controversial plan didn’t make it on the Navajo Nation Council’s summer legislative agenda.

A Phoenix-based development group, the Confluence Partners, fronted the plan in 2012 to build Grand Canyon Escalade, which would occupy 420 acres near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, just east of Grand Canyon National Park. The development’s main draw would be the “Escalade” Gondola Tramway, carrying tourists to the Canyon floor. Once there, visitors could walk along an 1,100-foot elevated riverwalk, eat at a restaurant, or visit an amphitheater and terraced grass seating area overlooking the Colorado River. The development would also include a Navajo cultural center and retail and art galleries.

Since the plan’s unveiling, it has been the subject of opposition by the Hopi Tribe, Grand Canyon river runners, and Navajo families living near the Confluence who say such a development would be inappropriate at the remote and sacred site.

Lamar Whitmer, of Confluence Partners, said all the necessary approvals are in place, and the legislation was delivered to the Navajo Nation three months ago. As a next step, it would have been assigned a legislation number by the Navajo Nation Speaker’s office, but Jared Touchin, spokesman for the office, said the legislation never arrived; he suspects there were legal issues that remain to be resolved. The deadline for consideration in the legislative Summer Session was Tuesday, July 8.

“Because we haven’t been able to get to the Council in a timely fashion, the opening will be pushed back until May 2018,” Whitmer said. The previous opening date was the summer of 2017. “It’s disappointing, having gotten to know the people in the area and the need that exists in western Navajo for jobs and economic opportunity.”

According to the Confluence Partners, the development would create more than 2,000 jobs, most of them for Navajo people, and would generate $50 to $95 million annually for the tribe. They say a significant portion of proceeds would also benefit residents of the Bennett Freeze, where development was prohibited for decades because of land disputes with the Hopi Tribe.

Residents of the Bodaway Gap Chapter, within which the development would take place, voted 59-52 in the fall of 2012 to approve the plan. But families who live in the area have banded together to form a group called Save the Confluence, which has been adamantly opposed to Escalade. They allege, among other wrongs, that their neighbors were bullied and tricked into supporting the project.

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Renae Yellowhorse, a Save the Confluence member, said the Confluence Partners and their opponents have presented to the Council in recent weeks, but she said the main efforts of the Confluence Partners have taken place behind closed doors.

“Their presentation at the Council was a show,” she said. “We thought they were going to bring substance. Instead, after 10 minutes of Albert Hale [of Confluence Partners] speaking, it went directly into a Power Point presentation and a show about Hawaii, theater. If that’s the kind of Disney Land-ish thing he wants to bring to the edge of the Grand Canyon, no. That’s not how we want our stories told. We’re here. We’re not a story from the 1800s. We’re not Pocahantas on the Rim. It was offensive.”

Yellowhorse, whose family has traditionally herded sheep near the Confluence, said she supports development along Highway 89 leading to the Grand Canyon and through the Bodaway Gap Chapter – but not on the traditional Confluence lands.

“It’s going to mar the pristine beauty,” she said. “Plus, if it fails, if it’s a disaster, are they going to clean it up again and bring it back to the way it was?”

Whitmer said the Confluence Partners have been hard at work to revise the plans for Escalade based on public concerns. For example, they moved the riverwalk 300 feet back from the Confluence, which is the place of emergence for the Hopi and Zuni tribes. However, a major complaint by leaders from both of those tribes is that the Confluence Partners have not approached them directly about the development. Similarly, Maureen Oltrogge, spokesman for Grand Canyon National Park, said a January 16 request for a meeting with Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, to discuss concerns about the development, has gone unanswered. Meanwhile, Confluence Partners have published numerous ads in local newspapers promoting Escalade’s grandeur.

Save the Confluence has also secured ample media attention, as well as legal assistance and the backing of conservation groups including the Flagstaff-based Grand Canyon Trust.

“Grand Canyon Trust has continued to support the families that oppose the Escalade based on its intrusive impact to the Grand Canyon as well as the impact it will have for the environment there,” said Deon Ben, Navajo, the Trust’s Native America Program associate.

Despite the delay, he said, “you can’t underestimate the movement of this project, because there are individuals within Confluence Partners who know the ins and outs of the Navajo Nation government. We have some time now to be strategic. We’re keeping a positive outlook.”