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Developers look to cash in on Grand Canyon

Traffic backed up at the south entrance to Grand Canyon National Park, where waits can be 30 minutes or more, and parking lots can fill up by 10 a.m.

In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt stood on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, infinite layers of sunset-colored rock unfolding into the earth behind him. “I hope,” he later said, “you will not have a building of any kind … to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it.”

Two years later, a new hotel went up where Roosevelt had stood. In 1919, the area became a national park, and trainloads of visitors began clamoring to see it. Since then, the Grand Canyon has been caught between competing visions: One that subscribes to the spirit of Roosevelt’s words and another that seeks to accommodate an ever-growing number of tourists.

Over the past century, proponents of the latter have had considerable success. Though some proposals were abandoned, including an 18-story hotel that would have been built into the canyon wall and dams that would have flooded its floor, hundreds of others went forward. Roads, hotels and parking lots now spider-web the surrounding lands. In 2007, the Hualapai Tribe built a glass platform over the canyon’s edge that visitors can pay $75 to walk on. Or they can spend $300 to helicopter over the chasm.

Still, the thirst to cash in on the canyon’s popularity remains unquenched. If anything, it’s grown, as 5.5 million visitors a year have bestowed on the Grand Canyon the dubious honor of being the nation’s second-most popular park (after Great Smoky Mountains). And though the park is protected, two of the biggest potential projects fall beyond its jurisdiction: a private development known as the Grand Canyon Escalade, which would bring restaurants, shops and a gondola to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, on Navajo land, and a plan to turn the scrappy gateway community of Tusayan, near the South Rim, into a luxury village.

Just over a year ago, the looming possibility of these projects caused the nonprofit American Rivers to deem the Colorado River the most endangered river in the country. Today, the outlook is rosier: A 2015 election ousted Escalade’s most powerful supporter, former Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, and replaced him with underdog Russell Begaye, who has shelved the project.

In early March, Kaibab National Forest Supervisor Heather Provencio rejected the road expansions necessary to build five-star hotels, a spa, dude ranch, “retail village” and 2,100 houses in Tusayan, a desert town now home to 500 people and a few modest hotels, company housing and helicopter tour companies. The proposal, Provencio explained, “is deeply controversial, is opposed by local and national communities, would stress local and Park infrastructure, and have untold impacts to the surrounding Tribal and National Park lands.”

Tusayan town manager Eric Duthie says the decision “absolutely surprised” him and deprives local workers who live in company housing of the opportunity to own their own homes. Tusayan (working in partnership with Italian investment firm Gruppo Stilo) is still considering its next move.

If Stilo’s past record is any indication, though, this isn’t the end. Starting in the 1990s, the company bought up 75 percent of the private property around Tusayan. County residents voted down its development plans, but Stilo sidestepped them after Arizona passed a 2003 law enabling Tusayan to become an incorporated town. Knowing that local officials could trump the county’s objections, Stilo and its affiliates poured money into an incorporation campaign. They even launched a weekly newspaper that ran front-page editorials promoting it.

Still, Tusayan voters rejected incorporation until the 2010 election. Then, amid allegations of voter fraud, Tusayan became a town — albeit one divided over its future. Stilo stacked the new town council with members who were later revealed to have accepted thousands of dollars and traveled to Italy on Stilo’s dime.

But environmentalists, river runners, nearby communities, and the Hopi, Havasupai and other tribes remained opposed, submitting tens of thousands of comments that helped sway Provencio’s decision. Of particular concern was water: The developers didn’t explain how they’d supply it to thousands of new guests and residents. The obvious solution was drilling for groundwater, which could dry up some of the Grand Canyon’s natural springs, like Havasu Canyon’s sacred blue waters.

“I’m incredibly happy right now,” says Kevin Dahl, senior Arizona program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “But there’s a part of me that worries that about the next big campaign. We thought we stopped (Tusayan) once, by a vote of the people, and it came back. I have to admit that it might come back again.”

Indeed, Tusayan could submit a new proposal, should it address park and tribal concerns. So, too, might Escalade: A recent Navajo Times editorial claims legislation to override Begaye and push the development through is slated for the tribal council’s spring session. And even environmentalists who oppose both projects agree that with annual park visitation expected to double to 10 million by mid-century, more beds and infrastructure are needed. The challenge will be to figure out how to provide them without sacrificing the natural resources that make the canyon so grand.

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