The Latest in the Fight to Protect the Grand Canyon
If you thought the Escalade tramway project was dead, it’s not. Or that the massive Tusayan development couldn’t happen, it still can. And if you assumed uranium mining was banned for good in the Grand Canyon…well, sort of. Despite several small victories along the way, commercial development and mining interests still remain a very real threat to the Grand Canyon.
We talked to Roger Clark, Grand Canyon Program Director for Grand Canyon Trust, to find out the latest developments. Here’s what you need to know…
Escalade Project Not Off the Table
The controversial Escalade Project, which has the potential to deliver up to 10,000 people per day into the heart of the Grand Canyon, is moving forward, according to Clark. The billion-dollar, 420-acre development boasts a 1.4-mile tramway from the Canyon’s southern rim to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, as well as an elevated walkway, amphitheater and restaurant.
“Two or three busy days would exceed the entire volume that this area is seeing in [annual] visitation by river rafters,” explained Clark. “The permits for private and commercial boaters are around 24,000 per year.”
“In addition, there’s a 22- to 24-mile road that would be paved into the area that would open up the area to additional commercial development and access,” says Clark. “A completely undeveloped, very remote part of the canyon would potentially become a highly developed and congested area.”
The proposed development, which first made national headlines in 2014, was dealt a serious blow back in June 2015 when the Navajo Nation elected Russel Begaye—who strongly opposed the Escalade Project and said his administration will not support it—as their incoming president.
But since Navajo president Begaye took over, proponents for the Grand Canyon Escalade, including former Navajo president Ben Shelly and the developers behind the project, have been lobbying the Tribal Council. Now, legislation which would allow them to move forward with their plans for the tram and luxury resort is expected to be back on the table. And according to Clark, that legislation could be introduced as soon as early June. The legislation will then go to a council vote.
[Update 8/29/16: Legislation to jumpstart the tramway project has been introduced to the Navajo Nation Council and there is now a 5-day public comment period that ends Saturday, Sept. 5 at 5 p.m. Digital comments may be e-mailed to email@example.com.]
“If developers succeed in bringing the issue to a vote by the entire council, it will likely occur during the week of July 18,” says Clark. “Escalade proponents will need two-thirds of the 24-person council to override President Begaye’s veto.”
Ultimately, since the project will be built on Navajo land near Grand Canyon National Park, the fate of the Escalade project is in the hands of the Navajo Council.
“We have 7 people solidly against it, 6 solidly for it, 10 undecided,” says Clark. “So we’re working on a delegate by delegate basis with the Navajo families and community leaders to make sure that they cannot get this thing approved over a presidential veto.”
According to Clark, there will be a short public comment period that could help influence the undecided council members and it’s important to hear from people and organizations beyond the Navajo Nation.
Small Victory for Opponents of Tusayan Development
As the battle over the Escalade project heats up again, opponents of the massive Tusayan development project are celebrating a small victory.
If the Tusayan development happened—2,200 new homes and three million square feet of commercial space just two miles from the Grand Canyon National Park entrance—it would severely impact the aquifer that directly feeds springs below the Canyon’s south rim and provides the sole source of drinking water for the Havasupai.
“The main concern there is water and how they would get it,” according to Clark. “The existing town of Tusayan relies on several wells that are already having an adverse impact on the quantity of water coming out of springs in places like Havasupai Gardens.”
But in March, the U.S. Forest Service rejected the development proposal application on environmental grounds, saying it would “stress local and park infrastructure and have untold impacts to the surrounding Tribal and National Park lands.”
The decision does not entirely rule out the Tusayan development, but it does send a message that protecting the water, wildlife and sacred areas within the greater Grand Canyon area is a high priority.
Clark urges ongoing vigilance. “The developers haven’t gone away and they won’t go away,” he says. “They’ll come back with a new application that will attempt to explain why this development is in the public interest and why public lands should be opened up.”
Uranium Mining Continues
In 2012, after decades of contamination to the Grand Canyon watershed, a 20-year ban was imposed on all new uranium claims on public lands surrounding the canyon. Despite the ban, four existing sites threaten to continue contaminating the Grand Canyon’s delicate ecosystem, including Canyon Mine, a roughly 20-acre site in the Kaibab National Forest, that’s about to be back in business.
“They’ve been at it since November and they’re down 1,000 feet below the surface,” according to Clark who visited the site several times recently. “It looks like the mine will be ready to haul uranium starting in September.”
“Canyon Mine is within a few hundred feet of the Redwall-Mojave aquifer, which is the sole source of water for Havasupai people,” continued Clark. “Ground water modeling shows that contaminated water from the Canyon Mine would wind up in Havasupai springs and could also contaminate other springs in the south rim.”
Unfortunately, since Canyon Mine was grandfathered in and excluded from the 20-year moratorium, we can only try to improve how the operations are regulated and fight for additional measures like ground water monitoring wells to prevent, as much as possible, water pollution and harm to wildlife from the mine as it goes forward, according to Clark.
Beyond this, we can continue to push for the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument, which would permanently protect 1.7 million acres of public land surrounding the canyon. The designation would also make the ban on new uranium mines permanent—a move that’s urgent as the U.S. gears up for a change in administrations.
3 Ways You Can Help Protect the Grand Canyon Right Now
- Support Save the Confluence in their fight to prevent the Escalade development.
- Tell President Barack Obama and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell that you support the creation of the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument that would protect 1.7 million acres of land around the Grand Canyon.
- And get involved with Grand Canyon Trust to remain vigilant and join the community of people dedicated to protecting the Canyon for the long-haul.
Photos: Colorado and Little Colorado Confluence – Grand Canyon Trust, Escalade Rendering – Confluence Partners, Grand Canyon Rafting – James Kaiser, and Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument – Grand Canyon Trust