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.
The tram would run from the East Rim and parallel the Colorado River before coming to a stop at the bottom of the canyon, where a restaurant would be located. A half-mile river walk, also running alongside the Colorado River, would give tourists a view of the confluence but stop short of it. The resort hotel and spa, other hotels, and commercial and retail space would be located on top of the canyon.
The proposed attractions could create a jurisdictional dispute, depending on their distance from the Colorado River. The Navajos believe the reservation extends to the high water mark of the Colorado River, while the National Park Service says its boundary is a quarter-mile from the river's bank along the 61-mile stretch of the Colorado before it meets the Little Colorado.
Grand Canyon park officials also want to maintain the wilderness characteristics of the East Rim, which is popular with backcountry hikers and not easily accessible, and make sure endangered species like the humpback chub are protected, said park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga. Environmental groups say the noise and light pollution would be unwelcome.
"It's not Disneyland," said Lynn Hamilton of the Grand Canyon River Guides, a canyon advocacy and environmental group. "It's one of the seven natural wonders of the world. To mar that somehow with such commercialism right there, in your face would just seem contrary to what the value of Grand Canyon is."
Environmentalists applauded the Navajo government for throwing out plans for an airport, verbally at least, though it remains in the written agreement.
Shelly has vowed to protect sacred sites, and although he initially opposed any development at the confluence, his spokesman says it is one of the premier locations on the reservation to draw tourist dollars. But the tribe still must pursue land and leases from a community that appears largely opposed.
This is what Tyrone Tsosie called his backyard as a child. He recalled his grandmother taking him out to the confluence and showing him how to use corn pollen — a staple of Navajo tradition — to pray to the rivers for blessings. Yucca root, white flowers and sage that grow there also are used for traditional and medicinal purposes, he said.
"The main thing right now for my generation, we don't want that kind of change, development out there because we don't want to lose that scenery and lose all those memories," said Tsosie, who no longer lives in the area.
Said Tome, "We're not always going to have 100 percent agreement, but we're going to do our part to bring development and jobs here to Navajo."