On previous raft trips down the Grand Canyon, I had seen summer rains bring roiling muddy water from the Little Colorado into the deep green of the Colorado River and dramatically change it to a silt brown color. This June was different.
We tied off our rafts at the confluence and walked upstream beside the most beautiful turquoise water I had ever seen. Sky blue, tranquil, the confluence is like a desert mirage. Now this sacred place in the depths of the canyon is threatened by a proposed tram from the top that will shatter the solitude and intrude where no mechanical system belongs. The Grand Canyon is under siege.
Of all landscapes in the American West, the Grand Canyon is the most iconic, representing wilderness and raw, unfettered nature shaped by the deep time of untold millions of years. The canyon is a major tourist destination for world travelers, and our perceptions of the value of the Grand Canyon have evolved as we have as a nation. A common belief is that the 277-mile-long canyon with its 1.7 billion-year-old rock is unchangeable and inviolate, but no longer.
On the far western side, the Walapai have built their expensive skywalk over the edge. Visitors board tourist coaches in Las Vegas and are shuttled out to walk upon a glass bridge. Shoes and cameras are not permitted. Tourists wear paper booties. Because of its shape, river guides have dubbed the skywalk “the toilet seat.” After a few minutes of intense vertigo, tourists can then be helicoptered to the bottom for a brief raft trip with Native American guides. Tourists can then proudly proclaim they have “done” the Grand Canyon.
The sense of humility, awe and soul-searching that come from a multi-day trip into the canyon on foot or by water never occurs. A Grand Canyon visit has now become just one more check-off on a bucket list with no nights under stars or camaraderie among fellow hikers or river runners. The economic success of the Walapai to the west has not been lost on Navajo officials to the east whose reservation border also parallels Grand Canyon.
Trekkers and river passengers can ignore the carnival atop the rim, but the new Grand Canyon Escalade proposal penetrates to the heart of the Grand Canyon at the confluence. Where Hopi, Zuni, other Pueblo tribes and even many Navajo themselves, see sacred space, a Scottsdale, Arizona, developer sees only dollars.
The Confluence Project seeks to build a 1.4 mile tramway descending 3,200 feet off the rim to a restaurant and amphitheater on a rocky ledge overlooking the Little Colorado. Gondola cars could bring 4,000 visitors a day who would stroll an elevated walkway. Undoubtedly, hundreds of visitors will want to play in the Mediterranean blue waters of the Little Colorado where river runners now play themselves, but they arrive and depart by water.
Immersion in those turquoise waters is part of a longer, multi-day wilderness experience away from the fast-paced mania of modern society. The Grand Canyon Escalade would bring to the canyon exactly what does not belong.
“The canyon’s custodians confront a challenge that some are calling one of the most serious threats in the 95-year history of Grand Canyon National Park,” said journalist and historian Kevin Fedarko in a New York Times opinion piece. He explains that the park’s superintendent says the proposal represents “a real and permanent” danger because it “will change the landscape for all future visitors.”
We’ve been here before. In the 1960s plans to build dams inside the canyon and to flood portions of it included the rationale that in motorboats more people could see the Grand Canyon. David Brower of the Sierra Club countered: “Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel to get closer to the ceiling?” Under intense political pressure, the Bureau of Reclamation backed down, and environmentalists claimed a major victory.
This time it is not eco-advocates rallying the conservation community against a federal bureaucracy. This time it is a private developer exploiting an impoverished Native American tribe because of a loophole half as large as the Grand Canyon itself. Where’s the property line? How much of the canyon’s bottom do Native Americans own?
My hero, Theodore Roosevelt, first protected Grand Canyon by designating 800,000 acres of it as a national monument in 1908. Congress created Grand Canyon National Park in 1919. It was expanded in 1974 with an enlargement act that moved the boundaries to include all of Marble Canyon to Lees Ferry, but no firm property line was established at the river, and the Navajo Nation is a sovereign entity.
Does the tribal reservation extend to the middle of the Colorado River? Does it go to the high water line? Or does it begin one-quarter mile back from the river’s edge as the Bureau of Reclamation argued during its dam building era?
To complicate things, Bureau of Indian Affairs Commissioner Robert Bennett enacted the Bennett Freeze in 1966 because of ongoing land disputes between Navajos and Hopis. No development of any kind occurred on 1.5 million acres of the reservation where 20,000 people live.
“Residents couldn’t so much as repair a roof or maintain a horse corral,” explains Anne Minard in Indian Country Today. Only 3 percent of families in the area have electricity, and only 10 percent have running water.
President Barack Obama eliminated those prohibitions in 2009, and now millions of dollars are available for rehabilitation and development, but the Confluence Project hardly seems appropriate.
“As Native Americans, we are taught to respect the land. This is the opposite,” says Julyn Yazzie from the Bodaway Chapter near Cameron, Arizona.
“I’ve been to the confluence. Taking that special natural place and disrupting it with development makes no sense,” argues American Rivers Chief Executive Officer Bob Irvin. “The Colorado River and the Grand Canyon are a symbol of what we do best in this country, and the confluence is an iconic and sacred place important to all Americans.” He add that this is why American Rivers and the Grand Canyon Trust will be working with Navajo leaders on alternatives.
Swimming in the blue waters of the Little Colorado this summer, I could hardly have imagined the developmental storm brewing on the canyon rim above. Fedarko believes “what is happening is urgent and unprecedented.”
I can only hope we will follow the admonition of Theodore Roosevelt who stood on the South Rim and stated: Do not “mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve it. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it. What you can do is keep it for your children and your children’s children and for all those who come after you.”
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.