Kevin Fadarko for The New York Times:
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — WHEN I worked as a white-water guide at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I was often struck by how many passengers concluded their odyssey through the most iconic landscape in the United States by invoking the very same epiphany. At the end of each two-week, 277-mile journey down the Colorado River, someone would often come up to me and declare that the canyon was “America’s cathedral — a church without a roof.”
That image never failed to strike me with the indelible force of poetry and truth, because if there is a space of worship in this country that qualifies as both national and natural, surely it is the Grand Canyon.
Unfortunately, this idea of a tabernacle that is marvelously open, but also precariously vulnerable, is also a useful metaphor to capture what is unfolding this summer as 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.
To be precise, there is not one menace but two. And many of the people who know this place best find it almost impossible to decide which is worse, given that both would desecrate one of the country’s most beloved wilderness shrines.
On the South Rim plateau, less than two miles from the park’s entrance, the gateway community of Tusayan, a town just a few blocks long, has approved plans to construct 2,200 homes and three million square feet of commercial space that will include shops and hotels, a spa and a dude ranch.
Among its many demands, the development requires water, and tapping new wells would deplete the aquifer that drives many of the springs deep inside the canyon — delicate oases with names like Elves Chasm and Mystic Spring. These pockets of life, tucked amid a searing expanse of bare rock, are among the park’s most exquisite gems.
It’s a terrible plan, but an even deeper affront resides in the story of how the project came about.
In the early 1990s, the Stilo Group, based in Italy, began buying up private parcels inside the Kaibab National Forest, which is adjacent to the park. The group recently worked in partnership with Tusayan business owners to incorporate the town, and then to secure a majority of seats on the town council and control over local zoning.
It was a smart and effective strategy. But it also transferred to a small group of investors the power to irreparably harm the crown jewel of America’s park system.
Perhaps the only thing more dismaying is that the second threat is even worse.
Less than 25 miles to the northeast of Tusayan, Navajo leaders are working with developers from Scottsdale to construct a 1.4-mile tramway that would descend about 3,200 feet directly into the heart of the canyon. They call it Grand Canyon Escalade.
The cable system would take more than 4,000 visitors a day in eight-person gondolas to a spot on the floor of the canyon known as the Confluence, where the turquoise waters of the Little Colorado River merge with the emerald green current of the Colorado. The area, which is sacred to many in the Hopi and Zuni tribes, as well as Navajo people, would feature an elevated walkway, a restaurant and an amphitheater.
Opposition, which is furious, includes a group of Navajos who accuse the developers of tricking fellow tribesmen into supporting the project with misleading presentations. While the developers argue that the entire project would lie within the reservation, the park service suggests that it might intrude into the park and would not be allowed. Whichever is the case, the project would be a travesty.
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Kevin Fedarko is the author of “The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon.”
Photo credit: Grand Canyon National Park