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5 Things We Stand to Lose if a Gondola Is Built in the Grand Canyon

by Shelby Huff Apr 13, 2015

The Grand Canyon: “America’s national treasure,” “America’s cathedral, “a church without a roof.” It’s a Wonder of the World and a World Heritage Site. Despite this, the National Park Service struggles to protect the grandeur of the canyon while sharing it with the world. The Grand Canyon is the second most visited National Park, after the Great Smoky Mountains, with five million annual visitors.

Now, nearly 100 years after it was declared a national park, the Grand Canyon is at the center of a development fight that would bring a lot more feet to its edges. Two miles east of the South Rim, Confluence Partners LLC — a Scottsdale-based development group that specializes in real estate and theme parks — is pushing to build a gondola to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The gondola, also called the Escalade, plans to bring up to 10,000 visitors a day to the confluence, the point where the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers meet and a site viewed as holy by Native Americans. Here’s what is at stake if the proposal is passed (knock on wood).

1. A sacred land

The Grand Canyon was made a National Park by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, but its splendor was worshipped and appreciated by many who came long before him. The ancient Pueblo people often made pilgrimages to the Grand Canyon, as they believed it was holy land. They were the first known people to live there — over 2,000 years ago — though there are signs native people inhabited the canyon up to 4,000 years ago. Their stories are written on the walls and in the stones throughout the canyon. Many tribes today still call the canyon home; like the Hopi and the Zuni, who are understandably less than enthusiastic about the proposed project. And there are the Navajo, the largest Native American tribe today in both population and geographical size.

Renae Yellowhorse, one of the lead organizers of a Navajo coalition called Save the Confluence, explained, “The confluence is where our ancestors came from. That’s where our spirits go back to. My father passed away last March. That’s where he resides. If there is a development there, where are our prayers going to go?”

The confluence is one of the most remote areas of the canyon. Yet, development plans would bring a 420-acre complex of retail and gift shops, fast food restaurants, a 5,000 square foot fine dining restaurant, a museum, amphitheater, hotels and motels, a lodge with a patio, cultural events, restrooms, and an elevated river walk and ample parking for both cars and RVs to the otherwise untouched ground, burying the very thing that makes the site sacred.

2. A way of life and an end of traditions

Because the development site lies on Navajo land, just outside the park boundaries, the park does not have an official say in the matter. And though the Zuni people have opposed the development, as well as the city of Flagstaff, whose revenue heavily relies on tourism, Confluence LLC is still pushing on.

The Park Service strongly opposes the project, as it would overburden the available resources and affect the visitor experience, with 98% of the park being backcountry terrain, i.e., untouched land. The Escalade would dim the night sky, increase noise levels and crowding, and bring more jets into the airport. Dave Uberuaga, Superintendent of the Grand Canyon National Park stated, “If it does become a reality, then I think it will be a travesty for the American people.” But it’s not just the American people visiting that it would impact, it’s the Navajo people that live there.

Navajo officials and developers argue the development will bring the Navajo out of poverty and unemployment, creating several thousand jobs and opportunities for them. In return though, they not only lose a sacred land, but their way of life.

3. Delayed gratification

To reach the confluence now, it is a full day’s hike, off trail, or days and days of rafting. It’s a land far from the sights and sounds of the modern world, filling the senses with life in every direction. The place, like many things, is appreciated all that much more when hard work is put into reaching it. Creating a shortcut to it, complete with hot dogs in reach, RV parking, and the comforts of the modern world, strips away not only the remoteness and wildness of an unchanged land, but the idea that anything truly great is earned.

Navajo officials and Confluence LLC are pushing for the development for this very reason — because it’s one of the most remote areas of the canyon. R. Lamar Whitmer, the man behind the Escalade, believes the park service only offers a “drive-by wilderness experience,” adding that “the average person can’t ride a mule to the bottom of the canyon. We want them to feel the canyon from the bottom.” What the canyon needs, he says, is infrastructure for easy access to the inner gorge.

They want to make it accessible for anyone and everyone. But isn’t that what makes it so special? That it is still a very wild place in a world where that’s becoming a rare thing. In a fast-paced world, we do not need to rush time when it comes to wilderness, the very place we go to slow down time and appreciate where we are and what is right in front of us, as it is.

4. A fragile ecosystem

There is so much magic held in the canyon walls. It provides a natural habitat for 355 bird species, 89 mammalian species, and 56 reptile and amphibian species. There are more than 1,700 different kinds of vascular plants, more than 190 lichen and 160 fungi varieties, and 12 species of endemic plants.

Regardless of the efforts to sustain the pristineness of the land, the steady flow of feet do leave an impact. Rocks that date back 1.8 billion years have been polished smooth by the many feet that travel to the Canyon’s edge each year. Human waste, trash, and leftover clothes are routinely found on trails. Noise can be abundant, with the 65,000 annual helicopter tours flying in from Las Vegas, allowed to fly 1,000 feet above the canyon floor. On high use days, idling cars can be backed up more than a mile outside the South Rim entrance, where ninety percent of visitors catch their first glimpse of the canyon.

But the biggest concern with the Escalade development, bringing 10,000 more people per day to an already heavily trafficked area, is water availability. On April 7, 2015, the Colorado River that supplies water to 40 million people, was named the most endangered river in the nation. Lake Powell is at 45% capacity. The Bureau of Reclamation predicts that by 2060, the Colorado River’s flows will decline by 8.7 percent, equal to the amount of water canaled to Los Angeles, which gets half of its water from this river. Water is already such a precious commodity in the park that elk have been seen drinking from public water faucets. But water becomes even more of a concern when considering another proposed development, outside the South Rim entrance in the town of Tusayan. Currently, the population is 587, but developers want to bring 2,200 more homes and a strip mall to the town. More people means more demand for water, water that isn’t available. And the situation becomes yet even more grim when considering the megadrought unfolding across the west.

The Colorado River is one of the siltiest, most litigated over, and frequently paddled rivers in the world. The gondola would only add unnecessary impacts through traffic, waste, pollution, and noise. The park fights on a daily basis to protect the canyon from overdevelopment. But as it is outside park boundaries, this is not their battle to fight, yet it is something that could alter the landscape for all future generations.

5. Humans’ relationship with nature

Going ahead with the development and turning a blind eye to not only the severe drought, but the sacredness of the land, leaves others with the idea that nature is something to be improved upon, that it’s a place to expect the same luxuries and entertainment as a theme park.

Standing on, in, or below extraordinarily ancient rock as it was all those years ago reminds us of our place in the world. We play such a tiny role. The canyon, like many wild places, have things to tell us, to teach us. Try as we might, humans cannot control nature. We’re not separate from it. We’re part of it. What we do to the river, we do to ourselves.

Let’s please leave the crazed consumerism mentality out of the wild places many go to escape it. Teddy Roosevelt said it best 112 years ago when he first visited the South Rim of the canyon:

“I want to ask you to do one thing in connection with it, in your own interest and in the interest of the country — keep this great wonder of nature as it is now. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

Building a gondola to the bottom of the Grand Canyon isn’t just about an easy ride to a stunning view (though I imagine less stunning glimpsing through thousands of people). It’s about how we, as humans, relate to the wilderness. It’s about more than too many people and not enough water. It’s about the remaining wild places in this world that are facing similar risks. It’s about the future of wildness. Introducing consumerism, overcrowding, and burgers to the confluence will eradicate its sacredness. Can we leave no land untouched anymore? How many times will it take for humans to learn that we cannot improve upon the land, that not touching it is the very thing that makes it sacred? Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

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