Protesters decry fee on road leading to Skywalk

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- Tourists heading to the Grand Canyon Skywalk have driven through Nigel Turner's ranch for years. Up until this past weekend, they haven't had to pay a fee to cross his stretch of land.

The decision by Turner to set up a checkpoint and start charging $20 per person has infuriated the Hualapai Tribe, which operates the Skywalk, and some tourists. They've been protesting this week, saying the fee is unethical and akin to highway robbery.

Turner said he's acting well within his rights because the easement granted to the federal government to allow public access on his property has expired. Federal officials disagree, saying the right of way purchased from Turner in settling a lawsuit he filed over the roadway is perpetual.

The two sides are set to meet in mediation Thursday.

Turner and the tribe have had a contentious relationship over the years. Turner's Las Vegas-based Heli USA Airways business once had landing rights at Grand Canyon West on the reservation, but the Hualapais severed their ties with him in a dispute over his business practices.

Turner raised objections to having a paved road to Grand Canyon West because he said it would endanger centuries-old Joshua trees and that it would transform the region into a busy tourist center like Grand Canyon National Park, about 90 miles to the east.

The tribe paid him $750,000 to drop his claims and clear the way for construction. The federal case settled in 2007 has since been reopened. Turner claims the road was supposed to be finished within four years or it would revert to him. He said he's now concerned that restoration work will not be done once a new project to pave the last 9 miles of Diamond Bar Road is complete.

No work was being done this week on Turner's property, but heavy equipment was allowed to pass.

Nader Fakhouri, who was visiting the Skywalk with his wife and sister-in-law, was stopped at the checkpoint. They paid $60 in fees and also were told they would have to sign off on a document that would release Turner from any liability if anything happened to tourists while crossing his land, but Fakhouri said they refused.

"Where's the representation we're being charged for?" said Fakhouri, of Westland, Mich.

Turner has said the fee includes access to an hourly rodeo show and other ranch activities. He instructed his employees not to charge a toll for tribal members, law enforcement or emergency vehicles, or other government vehicles.

In the meantime, tribal officials are footing the fee for tourists who want to board shuttles to the Skywalk.

Tribal Vice Chairman Philbert Watahomigie said he believes Turner's motivation is purely financial.

"This road has been utilized since we opened Grand Canyon West, 15 to 16 years ago," said "I don't know why he's doing this. We've talked to people at the county and they said they can't do anything for some reason, and they're letting him do this."

Mohave County supervisor Buster Johnson said it's not the county's battle.

"From everything I can see, Nigel has lived up to everything he agreed to in the court settlement, and the Indian nation didn't live up to theirs," he said. "What's that old saying? `Poor planning on your part doesn't constitute an emergency on mine.'"

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