The fall of the Grand Canyon Escalade development project

This story originally appeared on Canoe & Kayak. Words by Scott Willoughby.

Every Grand Canyon river-runner recognizes that some places are simply sacred. Recently, the Navajo gatekeepers of the Little Colorado River unmistakably declared some places are more sacred than others.

fall of grand canyon escalade

Artist Martin Simpson’s rendering of the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade, a tram which would carry up to 10,000 people per day to the floor of the canyon.

Related: The Confluence: Taking the hard way into the sacred, threatened heart of the Grand Canyon

The Navajo Nation Council dealt a deadly blow to the monstrous Grand Canyon Escalade development proposal on Oct. 31, voting 16-2. With the decision, the council unanimously decided to reject the plan that would have carried up to 10,000 tourists a day to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, a Navajo sacred site, via a 1.4-mile aerial tram from the canyon’s eastern rim. The proposal by developers Confluence Partners LLC from Scottsdale, Arizona, also included a half-mile elevated walkway and food pavilion along the Colorado River and a 420-acre commercial and lodging “village” on the rim. Here, the plan called for 5,000 square feet of restrooms, an RV park, gas station, helipad, restaurants, retail shops, motel, luxury hotel, the Navajoland Discovery Center and additional infrastructure.

Under the proposal, the tribe would be on the hook for an initial $65 million investment for roads, water and powerlines and communications, while providing a non-revocable 20-year operating license including a non-compete clause. In return, the Navajos would receive just 8 percent of the revenue.

The proposal was described as “absolutely totally one-sided” and a “rip-off” by various council members. This accounts for at least part of the reason why it had been met with a cold reception since project lobbying began seven years ago. Even after lengthy debate during the council’s special session led to significant amendments, overwhelming opposition to the project remained, prompting council delegates to pound a stake through its heart.

“We never said we were against economic development but, please, not in our sacred space,” activist Renae Yellowhorse from Save the Confluence said afterward. “We’re going to always be here to defend our Mother, to defend our sacred sites.”

Yellowhorse’s perseverance may yet be tested on the Grand Canyon landscape. While the odds of the Grand Canyon Escalade project coming back to life now seem slim, the reservation has an election next year that is sure to be complicated by grim economic realities facing the tribe. Many anticipate a hard blow from the scheduled 2019 closure of the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station and its supply mine near Page, Arizona, which employ hundreds on the reservation.

Confluence Partners had billed the aerial tram as an economic savior, promising up to 3,500 jobs for the tribe, although that number has been met with hardy skepticism. While developers have not said what they will do next, former Navajo President Ben Shelly, whose administration negotiated the project, believes it may still have a pulse.

“Don't just leave everything and say it's dead and gone,” he told the Associated Press. “Next year's an election. A lot of people will be campaigning. A lot of people will be talking.”

Ultimately, the Navajo Nation Council has the power to determine the fate of such a project. Current Navajo President Russell Begaye says he won't support any agreement. He is far from alone in his opposition.

fall of the grand canyon escalade

Zak Podmore, Little Colorado River. Photo: Will Stauffer-Norris

Several other Native American tribes, including the Hopi, Zuni and All-Pueblo Council of Governors have passed Tribal Resolutions opposing the project that threatens sacred ground many consider their “place of origin and emergence.” Hopi believe they have a responsibility to protect all land, and have stated that “the lands at the sacred center are the key to life.”

“This area of the Grand Canyon holds cultural significance to our people,” said Wilfred Eriacho, Sr., head of the Zuni Tribal Council. “For us it’s a place of emergence and we hold the area in great reverence.”

“We’ve been waiting for this day and are happy with the council’s decision to not approve this development,” added Hopi Tribal Chairman Herman Honanie.

Although the area falls outside of Grand Canyon National Park boundaries, the National Park Service also opposes the project in the heart of one of the most iconic landscapes on the planet. The Grand Canyon Trust and Save the Confluence have been engaged in the fight against the Escalade for years. Conservation group American Rivers named the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon America’s Most Endangered River of 2015, in large part due to the threat of the Escalade project and the associated “noise, trash and pollution scarring the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers.”

fall of grand canyon escalade

Zak Podmore, Little Colorado River. Photo: Will Stauffer-Norris

“This is a major win for everyone who loves the Grand Canyon. We applaud the Navajo Nation Council’s vote and are grateful to the Save the Confluence families and everyone who has spoken out against this terrible proposal over the past three years,” American Rivers President Bob Irvin stated. “The Grand Canyon should be protected for all of us, for all time. While today is a moment for celebration, we must remain vigilant. American Rivers will continue to defend the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River to ensure a positive legacy for future generations.”

That vigilance is likely to be aimed next at ongoing efforts by the Trump administration to abolish a ban against uranium mining in the watershed of America’s most renowned natural wonder. The 20-year uranium mining ban initiated by President Barrack Obama in 2012 covers more than one million acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service in the Grand Canyon watershed. Trump issued an executive order in March that led the Forest Service to suggest eliminating the ban among a list of policy proposals designed to increase production of domestic energy.

“The Forest Service should be advocating for a permanent mining ban, not for advancing private mining interests that threaten one of the natural wonders of the world,” Amber Reimondo with the Grand Canyon Trust said in a statement. “The Grand Canyon and the people and communities that depend on it cannot be left to bear the risks of unfettered uranium mining, which is what will happen if the moratorium is removed.”

Get involved: Follow Save the Confluence on Facebook and support the efforts of conservation groups like Grand Canyon Trust

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