Navajos Considering Grand Canyon for Economic Development
The site of the proposed development – north and west of Tuba City, Ariz., – is a majestic piece of the Grand Canyon’s East Rim that few have seen.
That could change if the proposal to build restaurants, hotels, an RV park, a tram to the canyon floor and a half-mile river walk inside the Grand Canyon goes forward.
Navajo Nation officials claim the plan could generate 2,000 local jobs, net between $40 million and $70 million in annual revenue and attract three million tourists. But many people are opposed, including some local landowners, environmentalists and the National Park Service.
The Navajo government recently penned a memorandum of understanding with Confluence Partners, LLC, of Scottsdale. The tribe is negotiating details with the developer in hopes of entering a contract before the MOU expires in the summer of 2013, says Deswood Tome, an advisor to Navajo President Ben Shelly.
Confluence Partners has been researching the idea and developing the plan for 12 years, Tome says.
“The Navajo Nation is going to work to get infrastructure funds to bring in power, roads and telecommunications to the area,” he said.
The Confluence – as locals call it – is a 20-mile drive down washboard dirt roads from Highway 89. Tome estimates the infrastructure alone will cost $60 million, which he says the tribe might be able to attain through bonding or by tapping federal, state and tribal money, including money set aside for the redevelopment of the Bennett Freeze.
The sagebrush dotted land has remained undeveloped because of a 40-year land dispute with the Hopi Tribe that only recently was settled. Most people living in the area moved away during the decades-long construction freeze, which was instituted by U.S. Commissioner for Indian Affairs Robert Bennett. The Bennett Freeze prohibited people from repairing their homes and barred any infrastructure projects.
But, now that the freeze is lifted, some people want to move back. Ty Tsosie lives in Phoenix but grew up near the Confluence. He dreams of moving home someday, and enjoys taking his family to the spot where his grandmother taught him Navajo prayers.
He is against the project because he says it runs counter to Navajo traditional teachings. The spot where the brown Colorado River meets the blue-green waters of the Little Colorado is believed to be the womb of civilization – the spot where Native Americans emerged into this world.
“We can’t just go out there just to look, like tourists do,” Tsosie said. “You have to go out there for a reason, you have to go out there to make an offering, to say a prayer. If you want to feel good about yourself again, you go out there to pray.”
Erny Zah, a spokesman for President Shelly, says the cultural-preservation argument cuts both ways.
“One of the biggest things our people say is, ‘We’re losing our language, we need to preserve our culture,’” he said. “One of the ways we can do that is with economic development. Because if there are jobs here on the Navajo Nation, they won’t have to leave to find a job, therefore they have access to the language and the culture.”
President Shelly has promised that sacred spots would be protected and that Navajos and other Native Americans would still have access to places of religious significance.
Petroglyphs, sacred springs and pilgrimage trails that mark the history of the Hopi Tribe are located near the site of the proposed development.
“The Navajo Tribe is remiss in not consulting with the Hopi Tribe and its traditional leadership before moving toward development,” said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office. “Every tribe that considers the Canyon important and sacred should protect it rather than commercially exploit it.”
President Shelly has said he will hold hearings and will not move forward with the project unless members of the nearby communities of Bodaway and Gap support it.
“This is in the very preliminary stages,” Zah said.
But Tome says he believes the project could be built within two years.
“Confluence Partners already has investors in place,” Tome reported.
The total construction price tag will be close to $1 billion, he says. That includes restaurants, hotels, a visitor’s center and museum, shops and a gondola tram to the floor of the Canyon where tourists could dine.
But many environmentalists oppose the project because of its proximity to the Grand Canyon National Park.
“The wilderness character, wildlife, view-shed, night skies, seeps and springs, and natural quiet are all threatened by large resorts and airport developments,” said Alicyn Gitlin of the Sierra Club. “Improper development will chip away from the unique and essential experience of solitude in nature that Grand Canyon provides.”
The National Park Service has also turned a cold shoulder to the plan, and says the tribe will not be able to proceed because their land boundary is short of the confluence point. However, Tome says the Navajo believe the high water mark of the Colorado River is the true boundary, and that the land near the Confluence belongs to them.
The project would create a new spot for tourists to view the Grand Canyon. The south rim is visited by nearly five million tourists annually and is home to several hotels and restaurants, as well as an IMAX theater. An Italian developer is planning to build more hotels, retail space and a luxury resort in the nearby town of Tusayan.
A glass bridge built by the Hualapai Tribe on the west rim has attracted nearly two million visitors since it opened in 2007. A much smaller number visit the north rim, which is inaccessible during parts of the winter.
“What we’re looking at doing here is creating jobs for our Navajo people and also getting a piece of the tourism pie,” Zah explained. “This would be our attempt to get a portion of that money that’s already spent in the area.”
Tome says the entire Northern Arizona region would benefit from the development, especially the communities of Page, Tuba City and Flagstaff.
“It will give tourists another place to go, a new attraction,” Tome says. “Everybody knows that Highway 89 from Page to Flagstaff is one of the most traveled tourism routes in the country. This is our effort to participate in the tourism that comes to Northern Arizona.” FBN