Park service: Development plans a major threat to Grand Canyon

  • Article by: JULIE CART , Los Angeles Times
  • Updated: July 9, 2014 - 11:17 PM
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Visitors enjoyed a stunning view of the Grand Canyon along the Rim Trail in January.

Photo: Mel Melson • Los Angeles Times • MCT,

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– At the rim of the Grand Canyon, busloads of Chinese tourists jostled on a recent day with twenty-something backpackers and an Amish family with rambunctious boys in suspenders and straw hats, all eager for a prime viewing spot.

They gazed out on a dizzying sight of receding canyons and sheer rock walls, with the Colorado River cutting through the canyon floor a mile down.

Generations of park managers have tried to preserve that natural vista, but officials here say a proposed development would alter the view.

Looking eastward from the canyon’s popular South Rim, visitors could soon see a hive of construction as workers build restaurants, hotels and shops on a mesa on the Navajo Indian reservation.

The developers also plan a gondola ride from those attractions to whisk tourists to the canyon floor, where they would stroll on an elevated riverside walkway to a restaurant at the juncture of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers.

That project and a second, unrelated development proposed for just south of the canyon have set off alarms at the National Park Service, which sees them as the most serious threat the park has faced in its 95-year history.

The first would alter the natural beauty of the canyon and encroach on its borders. The second, a major housing and commercial development, jeopardizes the fragile ecology and water supply on the arid South Rim plateau.

The Tusayan development would add 2,200 homes and 3 million square feet of commercial space to a town that is now two blocks long.

‘Serious threats’

Park officials say existing development around the park and the scarcity of water have already stressed the park’s ability to handle visitors. The new projects would only make matters worse.

“They are serious threats to the future of the park,” said park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga.

The Grand Canyon affords once-in-a-lifetime views, but it has always been difficult for anyone except seasoned hikers to reach the canyon floor. Most of the 5 million annual visitors stop at the rim, look out and move on without ever venturing into the canyon.

Native American tribes are changing that. Grand Canyon West, on Hualapai land, operates the Skywalk attraction, a popular glass walkway that juts out over the canyon. Since 2007, the tribe has offered helicopter tours that land on tribal property next to the river.

The proposed Grand Canyon Escalade gondola would afford a rare opportunity for tourists to reach the canyon floor, said developer R. Lamar Whitmer, who is working with the Navajo.

The park service offers nothing more than “a drive-by wilderness experience,” he said. “The average person can’t ride a mule to the bottom of the canyon. We want them to feel the canyon from the bottom.”

It’s at the bottom that the conflict lies, as the Navajo contend that they have rights to property above the high-water mark of the rivers.

Park officials say the Navajo are mistaken. Federal jurisdiction extends a quarter-mile on either side of the Colorado, the park says, and no development can occur any closer to the water.

For now, the park is waiting for the tribe to complete its planning process before providing an official response.

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