Grand Canyon tram proposal sparks ire, awe from Navajo Nation to Germany

Renae Yellowhorse, a volunteer with Save the Confluence, has spent four years fighting to stop the Escalade project. (Photo by Courtney Columbus/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – As a child, Renae Yellowhorse chased birds through the sagebrush on the Navajo reservation along the edge of the Grand Canyon.

She remembers her great-grandmother talking reverently about the canyon. Yellowhorse considers the confluence of two rivers that run through the Grand Canyon as sacred space, where a storied past needs to be preserved for the future.

Larry Hanks lives in Cedar Ridge, where he cooks with a wood-burning stove, doesn’t have running water, and uses a propane lamp for light. He sees a future where a proposed tourist development could bring thousands of jobs to this remote, economically impoverished corner of the reservation.

Scottsdale-based Confluence Partners, LLC wants to build a restaurant, hotels and an RV park on the rim of the canyon, along with a tram that could carry 10,000 passengers per day.

International attention over confluence

The tension surrounding the Grand Canyon Escalade on Navajo land has ratcheted up as the Navajo tribal council introduced a bill proposing the development, which has been in the works for several years. The first committee hearing of the bill is scheduled for Oct. 10 at Twin Arrows Resort and Casino in Flagstaff.

If the council approves the project it would pay $65 million toward a $230 million project to include a Navajoland Discovery Center. It would be built on up to 420 acres of the tribe’s land, according to the bill. The Navajo Nation would pay for electrical power and water lines, as well as build a 26-mile paved road to connect the resort to the nearest road.

Thousands of signatures from across the United States and as far away as Australia, South America, and Germany poured into the council during a five-day comment period that ended Sept. 3, according to American Rivers, a national conservation organization.

More than 59,000 people in the U.S. were among those who signed the petition opposing to the development, according to American Rivers data.

Members of the Navajo Nation, perhaps the most directly affected by the proposed project, are divided over the Escalade.

Grassroots organization Save the Confluence, founded seven years ago to oppose the project, also collected signatures during the public comment period, Yellowhorse said.

The development “would forever ruin that special place that you went to commune with nature, or just to think,” said Yellowhorse, who has volunteered with Save the Confluence since 2012.

She said the number of signatures received during the public comment period showed her the world is listening.

“It just warmed my heart, down to the very bottom of my heart,” Yellowhorse said. “I was very grateful, as disappointed as I was with my lawmakers that they are even considering this legislation. The world cares.”

The tribal council is still counting the number of comments received and hasn’t yet released a total, according to a tribal official.

Number of Petition Signatures
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Embracing sacred land

Karlie Jones, a member of the Iroquois Confederacy who lives in Mesa, said she signed the petitions opposing the Escalade project because it would be built on sacred land and mar the natural beauty of the canyon.

Author Kevin Fedarko hiked hundreds of miles through the Grand Canyon. He described the view from part of the eastern rim of the Grand Canyon, looking down thousands of feet to where the Colorado River meets the turquoise Little Colorado River, as ‘the transect of a cathedral.’

Fedarko, author of the The Emerald Mile and other works about the Grand Canyon, worries the project could set a precedent for similar developments.

Some argue the project would disrupt sacred land, including the place where the Hopi say their ancestors originated.

Navajo Nation resident Darrick Shorty, doesn’t believe the project would harm sacred sites. The tram ends a few hundred feet above the confluence of the two rivers, he said.

“The confluence itself will not be touched by the construction,” he said. “Right now as we speak, there’s rafters down there camping out, building a fire and swimming and drinking and having a good time, right around the confluence, one of our people’s sacred sites. To them it’s just about having fun.”

Thousands of jobs in land of poverty

The developers said the project could bring thousands of jobs, including temporary construction work, to a region that has long struggled with poverty. They estimate that 850 employees will be needed to run operations, including the Navajoland Discovery Center, and an additional 1,200 to 1,300 jobs will be created by the hotels, RV park and convenience store, according to documents filed with the council.

The Navajo Nation will receive eight percent to 18 percent of the revenue from the Escalade operations, depending on how many tourists visit the attraction each year. If any fewer than 800,000 people visit annually, the Nation would receive eight percent of the revenue. For the Nation to receive 18 percent of the revenue, more than two million people would need to visit within one year — an average of almost 5,500 people per day, according to documents filed by Confluence Partners.

Confluence Partners would also claim two percent of the total revenue the Nation earns from the project.

The potential economic impact is a major reason to support the development, advocates said. More than 173,000 people live on the Navajo reservation, the largest in the U.S. and, at 27,000 square miles, slightly larger than West Virginia. But in 2010 the poverty rate was 39 percent, according to Navajo Nation estimates.

And about one in three households on the reservation don’t have access to safe drinking water, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Shorty, who lives next door to Hanks, his uncle, about 20 miles away from the planned tourist attraction, wondered if people signed petitions opposing the Escalade project care about helping local people.

“Are they sitting in the comfort of their modern homes, with their high-speed Internet?” Shorty said. “They’re somewhere on the other side of the country, other side of the world. The people on the reservation are in real need.”

Albert Hale, a former Navajo Nation president and state lawmaker who is now spokesman for Confluence Partners, also questioned the opposition of people who don’t live in the area.

“They seem to be saying, ‘we don’t care how you live. We don’t care that you’re without any running water,” Hale said.

Albert Hale, Arizona lawmaker and spokesman for Confluence Partners, LLC, has been speaking out to rally support for the proposed Escalade project. (Photo by Courtney Columbus/Cronkite News)

Albert Hale, Arizona lawmaker and spokesman for Confluence Partners, LLC, has been speaking out to rally support for the proposed Escalade project. (Photo by Courtney Columbus/Cronkite News)

He said the project would bring more economic opportunity to the people of the Navajo Nation, enabling them to create a better future for their children.

But Confluence Partners will not be required to give Navajo residents preference for jobs, Hale acknowledged.

Sinjin Eberle of American Rivers doubts that many higher-level jobs would go to local residents. He called the project an example of “colonial domination.”

An October reckoning

A Navajo council committee is scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. Oct. 10 to discuss the development. The bill must pass through four committees before it reaches the full 24-member council. But the route through the committees, similar to the Arizona Legislature, can be circuitous.

One committee can send the bill back to another committee before it reaches the full council, according to Navajo Nation spokesman Jared Touchin. The council’s next session begins Oct. 17 but it’s not clear if the bill will be heard during the session.