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Navajo Nation eyes Grand Canyon for development

By Felicia Fonseca

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 24 2012 11:05 a.m. MDT

This artist rendering depicts a proposed aerial tramway that would ferry tourists from the cliff tops of the east rim of the Grand Canyon to the water's edge of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers below. The plan by the Navajo government is drawing opposition from the National Park Service, environmental groups and even some traditional Navajo herdsmen in the area.

HO, AP Photo/Confluence Partners, LLC

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Generations of Navajo families have grazed livestock on a remote but spectacular mesa that overlooks the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. This is the East Rim of the majestic Grand Canyon — the last with no significant development.

But ancestral tradition and the tranquility of the landscape could be subject to change if the Navajo government's plans are realized for a resort and aerial tramway that would ferry tourists from cliff tops to water's edge.

The vast 27,000 square-mile Navajo reservation abuts Grand Canyon National Park, and tribal leaders say they're losing out on tourist dollars and jobs for their people by leaving the land undeveloped. Navajo President Ben Shelly recently signed a nonbinding agreement that lists the gondola, a restaurant, a half-mile river walk, a resort hotel and spa and RV park among the attractions of a proposed development that he says will bring up to $70 million a year in revenue to the tribe and 2,000 jobs to the impoverished reservation.

"We want people from all over the world to visit Navajo land and the Grand Canyon," Shelly said. "We have many of the world's wonders in our midst."

True enough, but the National Park Service already is voicing objections to the large-scale development on its eastern flank. Environmental organizations and some Navajos who call the area home also oppose the project.

"This is just one more thing that is going to chip away at the solitude of the area, and it's really not the appropriate type of development for that area," said Alicyn Gitlin of the Sierra Club.

Similar proposals for a tramway that would take tourists from the East Rim to the river have been opposed by the local community of Bodaway-Gap. They oppose the scale and character of the current plan and want more say in what could be built there.

The confluence, as locals call it, is a 100-mile drive off Interstate 40 from Flagstaff off a rough dirt road. Sagebrush, rolling hills, arroyos, canyons and desert mark the landscape where the Colorado meets the blue-green waters of the Little Colorado. It's mostly quiet, save for the occasional helicopter tour over the Grand Canyon or the shouts from river rafters below.

The land has remained undeveloped for decades because of a land dispute between the Navajos and the neighboring Hopi tribe, both of which claimed aboriginal ties to it. A construction ban implemented by former U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett imposed a ban on home and land improvements in 1966. It was lifted in 2009, though little development has occurred on the 700,000 acres.

The western edge of the Grand Canyon outside the national park boundaries belongs to the Hualapai Tribe, which has a horseshoe-shaped glass bridge that juts out 70 feet over the canyon's edge and gives tourists a view of the Colorado River 4,000 feet below. Most people visiting the Grand Canyon go to the South Rim within the national park. The North Rim, also within the park, is less developed, but has a seasonal lodge.

The memorandum of agreement that Shelly signed with the Confluence Partners, LLC., on Feb. 21 doesn't state the impacts of a development on the East Rim. But a member of the negotiating team, Deswood Tome, said the tribal government expects 3 million visitors a year as soon as 2015 and revenue to be between $40 million and $70 million annually — up to a half of the tribe's budget not including federal funds.

No one lives at the overlook to the confluence but about a handful of people live nearby, and other families have said they want to move back since the construction ban ended. There is no water or electricity at the site and putting in the infrastructure would cost at least $60 million alone, which Tome said also could benefit residents. About 27 miles of dirt road would have to be paved to reach the site, and water would have to be piped in from miles away.

At full build-out, the project could approach $1 billion, said Lamar Whitmer, of the Confluence Partners, LLC.

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