The Grand Canyon: Natural Wonder or Next Great American Mall?

Conservationists oppose plans to build a gondola ride, retail shops, and an Imax theater on sacred Native American land.

(Photo: Timothy Hearsum/Getty Images)

Feb 11, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

We’d been driving for about an hour and a half—an eternity for a six-year-old. When we finally parked, I shot out of the family minivan ahead of my three brothers. This was the Grand Canyon. I didn’t know what that meant yet, but I knew it was outside the car.

It was a moment that jump-started my curiosity about the world. I couldn’t stop asking questions: “What is this doing here?” “Why is it so big?” “What do you mean, ‘erosion’?” “What do you mean, ‘millions of years’?”

It was just so big, and there was nothing but nature around it. It was somehow overwhelmingly empty. That is the Grand Canyon for me—sacred in the eyes of a child.

For the Native American tribes in and around the region, the canyon holds much more significance. One spot in particular—where the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers join at the canyon’s east edge—is recognized as the birthplace of some tribes and the final resting place for others.

Grand Canyon Gondolas
(Illustration: Courtesy Gilmore Parson)

It’s called “the confluence”—a beautiful and peaceful site far removed from the crowded, bustling tourist hub on the canyon’s south rim.

But that could soon change.

Developers Confluence Partners want to make a 420-acre attraction out of the east rim, with a plan to put in an Imax theater, retail shops, hotels, an RV park, and a 1.6-mile-long gondola tram that would take riders from the rim of the canyon down 3,500 feet to the valley floor in about 10 minutes. Intentions for the valley floor include construction of a terraced “riverwalk” and a food pavilion.

Called the Escalade—try not think of the monster Cadillac SUV of the same name—the $100 million project’s tram would bring around 10,000 visitors a day to within yards of one of Native Americans’ most sacred and spiritually relevant sites.

Since Escalade was unveiled in 2012, the project has been dividing people. Some in the Navajo Nation argue it will bring much-needed jobs and revenue. Others say the sacred site must be preserved at any price.

Inside The Business of Organics
(Map: Courtesy Westwaterbooks.com)

Ranae Yellowhorse, a member of the Navajo Nation, wants the site to remain untouched so that her grandchildren can see what she sees and what her ancestors saw before her.

“We were told by our elders that we don’t come here to sit and look around. You come here for a purpose,” Yellowhorse said in a video post for the conservation group Save the Confluence. “You come here to do your prayers, to feel the ground, to see the rocks, to get your medicine from the plants...and then you leave it the way you found it.”

But Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly told NBC News this week that he plans to give the project his approval, along with $65 million needed for roadwork and infrastructure. Shelly said the opportunity to bring new jobs and a fresh income stream—the developers propose to split between 8 percent and 18 percent of revenue with the Navajo Nation—is too important to pass up.

A land use dispute between the Hopi and Navajo people led to a 40-year ban on development in the area and left most of the 20,000 residents on the reserve without running water or electricity. Congress lifted the moratorium in 2009.

“I look from that view as the president, as the guardian of the Navajo people and our nation...and say, ‘What can I give to my families and my people?’ ” Shelly said.

But leaders from neighboring Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma tribes have banded together to fight the plan. Conservation organizations such as the Grand Canyon Trust and American Rivers along with the National Parks Service, which oversees the land inside the canyon, also oppose any development along the river.

NPS Grand Canyon spokeswoman Kirby Shedlowski said the agency has yet to receive a formal proposal from developers.

“What we’ve seen so far is what the public has seen, and we have issues with the effect the project would have on the night skies, water quality, increased use of the area, and the project’s proximity to sacred sites,” she said.

Sinjin Eberle, associate director at American Rivers, said the development could set a bad precedent.

“Allowing this to move forward would open the door to increasingly damaging developments in the future and set the precedent that the purpose of the National Parks is about developers from far away making money on the nation’s most iconic landscapes,” Eberle said.

Escalade’s developers said they hope the project can start construction by spring 2017, but Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust said that plan must be approved by the Navajo Nation Council.

Two decades removed since the Grand Canyon first blew my mind, I still think about the emptiness. If the plan goes through in its current form, the Escalade tram and buildings will be visible from the south rim viewing area, where I, along with millions of others, caught our first glimpses of the canyon.

If my six-year-old self had peered east across the expanse and seen a gondola heading to the canyon below, would I have been as infatuated with the colors, cracks, and breathtaking emptiness? Or would my questions have changed from “What’s erosion?” to “Can we go on that tram?” “Can we see the Imax movie?” “Can I get a hotdog?”