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Grand Canyon Escalade: ‘There’s a Lot of Unknowns’

When Navajo lawmakers unanimously voted down legislation allowing a developer to erect a 420-acre mega-resort on the rim of the Grand Canyon.
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When Navajo lawmakers unanimously voted down legislation allowing a developer to erect a 420-acre mega-resort on the rim of the Grand Canyon, they sided with local landowners, at least 18 tribes with ties to the area and more than 66,000 people around the globe--many who have never visited the Grand Canyon—who signed petitions opposing the development.

The five-member Law and Order Committee on October10 voted against a bill approving $65 million in funding, a master agreement with developers and withdrawal of land in the Navajo Nation’s Bodaway/Gap Chapter for a resort some have called “industrial tourism.”

Lawmakers at the meeting called the project a “gamble” that has divided the Navajo Nation and requires money that should be used elsewhere. The tribe’s economic development, justice and historic preservation departments had already opposed it.

“If we start establishing these particular projects across the Navajo Nation, how are we going to be in five years, in 10 years?” delegate Kee Allen Begay said. “Why can’t we invest back in our own culture, our traditional way of life?”

Save the Confluence, a coalition of Navajos fighting against the Escalade, greeted the no-vote with a short-lived, “two-second celebration” as they anticipated the next step in the battle, spokeswoman Renae Yellowhorse said. Leaders of the coalition attended the meeting, along with 15 landowners who have not agreed to abandon homes or grazing leases to make way for the resort.

“We weren’t allowed to cheer or to express anything verbally, or even to provide any of the information we wanted to share,” Yellowhorse said. “But the outcome of the vote was fantastic, refreshing. We did a short ‘yahoo,’ but then he had to regroup, get ready for the next step, move forward.”

A Wilderness Mega-Resort

The highlight of the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade is a 1.4-mile gondola tramway that could deliver as many as 10,000 tourists per day to the canyon floor. Blueprints also call for an elevated river walk, hotels, RV park, restaurants and a cultural center, all perched on the eastern rim of the Grand Canyon near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers—land held sacred by at least 18 local tribes.

The $1-billion project is the latest in a long and contentious history of attempts by developers to build just outside the boundaries of a national park that attracts 4.5 million visitors per year. If approved, the Escalade would be on the western edge of the Navajo Nation, about 100 miles north of Flagstaff.

Scottsdale, Arizona-based developers Confluence Partners unveiled the project in 2012, promising jobs and revenue to this impoverished corner of the Navajo Nation. Development here was halted half a century ago under the Bennett Freeze, a federal policy enacted in 1966 over disputes between the Hopi and Navajo. The freeze was lifted in 2009, but development continues to stall in this 1.6-million-acre area.

In October 2012, voters in the Bodaway/Gap Chapter narrowly approved withdrawal of land for the Escalade, but the proposal died in 2014 when it didn’t make it to the Navajo Nation Council’s agenda. In the years since, it has continued to generate ire from environmental organizations, the National Park Service, local and national opposition groups and thousands of individuals.

Delegate Benjamin Bennett, who represents the Crystal, Fort Defiance, Red Lake and Sawmill chapters, woke the sleeping giant in September when he introduced the latest proposal. During the October 10 meeting, Bennett defended the project, claiming the Escalade would create an estimated 3,500 jobs with an average yearly salary of $39,000.

“This project will allow the Nation to take part in the tourism market,” he said. “Our Nation is facing shrinking revenues from coal, oil and gas, and this project will assist those deficits.”

Bennett did not address the likelihood that the majority of jobs would go to non-Navajos. Nor did he tackle the myriad unanswered questions raised in a proposal that favors developers and largely ignores existing grazing permits and home-site leases, calls for the displacement of women and children and endangers water rights and sites held sacred by more than a dozen tribes.

The proposal also ignores opposition from adjacent pueblos, like the Hopi, who have called development at the confluence “unacceptable” as it will “irreversibly compromise the tranquility and sacredness of all the surrounding development area”— and a bill in Congress that seeks to create a national monument in a 2,600-square-mile area surrounding Grand Canyon National Park. That bill, introduced in October 2015, would ban new development and protect sacred tribal sites.

Bennett, of Fort Defiance, Arizona, lives more than 180 miles from the confluence. He did not respond to phone and email requests for comment.

A Losing Deal

Albert Hale, an Arizona state representative and an agent with Confluence Partners, also attended the October 10 meeting and spoke in favor of development, claiming the Navajo Nation would retain ownership of the land and improvements while Confluence Partners would develop and operate the project. Confluence Partners would contribute $162 million to develop and construct the first phase of the project while the Navajo Nation would give $65 million for roads and utilities.

But the Nation would be on the losing end of the deal once the resort is up and running. According to the proposal, the Nation will receive between 8 and 18 percent of gross revenues, depending on the number of paying customers.

If fewer than 800,000 customers pay the admission fee per year, the Nation will receive only 8 percent of gross revenues while Confluence Partners receives 92 percent. On the high end, if more than 2 million customers pay admission, the Nation would get 18 percent of gross revenues.

The proposal also states that, should Confluence Partners default on the loan, unnamed lenders will assume control of the Escalade “without the prior written consent of the Nation.”

Following the meeting, Confluence Partners’ managing partner Lamar Whitmer promised to meet with delegates to answer questions about the project.

“There’s a lot of unknowns,” Whitmer said. Delegates “don’t know a lot about the project and they need to know more, so we’ll be meeting with as many of them as we can so that we can resolve these issues.”

Whitmer, who also was involved in development of the Hualapai Tribe’s Grand Canyon Skywalk, has argued that the Escalade would afford “below-the-rim” access to the canyon to people who can’t hike, ride mules or boat. Whitmer did not return phone calls from ICTMN seeking additional information.

According to Hale, who formerly served as Navajo Nation president, Confluence Partners is prepared to break ground on the Escalade in August 2018 and open in May 2020. But construction cannot move forward without approval from the full Navajo Nation Council.

Law and Order was the first of four committees to hear the proposal before it goes to the full council for a vote. It next goes to the Resources and Development Committee.

Moving Forward

The proposal faces growing opposition. During the initial five-day comment period, more than 66,000 people from around the world opposed the development--a record for legislation introduced in the Navajo Nation Council. The vast majority of those comments came, in bulk, from American Rivers, a national advocacy group working to protect rivers, and one of the most vocal opponents to the Escalade.

Spokesman Sinjin Eberle said the organization received 58,000 comments against the development and forwarded all of them to the Navajo Nation Council. American Rivers since has collected additional tens of thousands of comments.

“We get comments from Canada, Europe and Australia,” Eberle said. “We have people weighing in from all around the world.”

A spokeswoman at the Navajo Office of Legislative Services put the total number of comments received at more than 66,000. Of those, 131 were supportive while 66,291 opposed.

Delegate Otto Tso, who represents the Tuba City Chapter, pointed to the opposing votes during the October 10 meeting. Most people taking a stance against the project have cited protection of wilderness areas, rivers or sacred sites.

“I oppose this project because it’s located within sacred ceremonial grounds,” Tso said. “The location is home to Navajo deities and the backbone and foundation to all Navajo ceremonies. We need to protect our sacred grounds.”

The proposal also moves forward despite Navajo President Russell Begaye’s promises to veto it. During an interview with ICTMN, Begaye recalled a trip to the canyon rim. Begaye, whose recent trip there was his first, admitted to getting lost in the sweeping landscape and relying on local guides to direct him to the edge of the canyon.

“I can now say I have stood at that point and looked down,” Begaye said. “Way down there, you see the rivers, the confluence. I had a spiritual experience there. There’s this power, this energy that comes from it, and I know why people say let’s not desecrate it.”

Begaye acknowledged the economic benefits that would come with construction of the Escalade, but he said he will not support a project by an outside developer—and never in a place where irreparable damage could be done to sacred sites.

“If it comes to me, I will veto it,” he said of the current proposal.

That’s good news to Yellowhorse, who said she will continue fighting until the confluence is under federal protection. Yellowhorse grew up in the former Bennett Freeze and understands the economic needs, but she believes there are other, sounder ideas for prosperity that don’t include desecrating sacred sites.

“Our ultimate goal is total protection of the confluence area and the entire Grand Canyon,” she said. “The primary, end point is to never let a threat like this come up ever again. I don’t want to leave and have my great-grandchildren have the same fight I have. I want them to feel secure that their place for prayer, for offerings, will endure.”