A renewed effort has been launched within the Navajo Nation to have a tramway built from the rim of the Grand Canyon down to the bottom at the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers.
Though Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said back in May 2015 that his administration opposed the so-called Escalade project, on Monday tribal councilman Ben Bennett introduced legislation to the Tribal Council calling for $65 million to help fund the project, which he portrayed as badly needed economic development for members of the Bodaway/Gap Chapter of the tribe. That money would be spent on building an access road and providing utilities to the tram site.
As Councilman Bennett envisions the project, it would include the tram, a Riverwalk, amphitheater, and food pavilion, all located along the western edge of Navajo Nation lands. There would be a restaurant on the canyon floor and a hotel on the canyon rim, according to Save the Confluence, a Navajo group opposed to the project.
At full development, the legislation states, the project would employ upwards of 1,100 with an "estimated payroll of $28 to $38.5 million." That estimate does not, however, "include employment from the Lease Pads for the hotels, RV-park, or convenience store, which are anticipated to generate another 1,300 jobs."
Grand Canyon National Park officials had no comment Tuesday, saying they were reviewing the legislation and what it calls for. At the National Parks Conservation Association, though, Kevin Dahl expressed concern over the re-emergence of the project.
"It is no surprise that the Scottsdale developer who envisions great profit from constructing a huge resort hotel and tramway on this beautiful and remote rim of the Grand Canyon is trying again to get the Navajo Tribal Council to literally buy in to his scheme, despite having been turned down before and despite opposition from the current Navajo administration," Mr. Dahl, NPCA's Arizona program manager, said in an email. "NPCA has grave concerns that if this plan goes forward there will be huge environmental impacts, such as damage to Blue Spring from pumping groundwater and disposing sewage. The spring is the perennial source of water for the Little Colorado River and the only remaining breeding habitat for an endangered fish, the Humpback Chub. The resort would bring noise and light pollution to one of the most isolated and pristine parts of the canyon.
"While we acknowledge the Navajo Nation’s sovereignty over development on their own lands," he continued, "we also strongly urge that the tribal council look at this very closely to decide if this is best for the Navajo people. We ask that they support local Navajo residents’ opposition and respect the agreements they have made with other tribes to protect each other’s sacred sites. The Hopi and Zuni were quick to ask the Navajo not to do this when it was proposed in the past, and nothing has changed."
The legislation calls for Confluence Partners, LLC, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based concern, to handle development and operations. Opponents say Confluence would receive 88-92 percent of the generated revenues, and that the company has no experience with construction projects. According to the legislation, the Navajo Nation would received a franchise fee of 8-18 percent of gross revenues "based on various visitor attendance levels."
The legislation further points out that while the Navajo Nation and Grand Canyon National Park share a common border, and that while the National Park Service has expressed concern about the project and its impact on the canyon, "the federal government, through the Navajo Nation Trust Land Leasing Act of 2000, has authority to conduct business site leasing without subsequent federal approval and the Escalade project environmental review will comply with Navajo laws..."
In 2015, American Rivers listed the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon as America’s Most Endangered River because of a battery of threats surrounding the Grand Canyon. One of these threats was the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade project, which "would create a massive development and tramway with noise, trash, and pollution scarring the heart of the canyon," the group said.