Controversial gondola could soon take visitors to Grand Canyon floor

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK -- For those who've visited the Grand Canyon, it's easy to see why it's dubbed one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Most bask in its beauty from the rim, but very few actually explore the canyon floor.

Dawn Gallagher from Chandler, along with her son and nephew, were among a sea of tourists who gazed in awe from a lookout on the South Rim known as Mather Point.
"I just see an amazing, awesome landscape," Gallagher said.
Eric Monroe, a geologist on vacation from Tampa, Florida, also brought his family to take a peek.
"It's humbling to stand here and see the vastness of this Canyon -- 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, over a mile deep," Monroe said.
They're just a few of the 5 million who visit Grand Canyon every year, and to whom one man hopes to give a different point of view. 
"The Grand Canyon is a very special place. It's a healing place, that people will have a different perspective of themselves and the universe, once they've been to the floor of the Canyon," said Lamar Whitmer.
Whitmer, a developer and managing partner from Confluence Partners LLC, based in Scottsdale, is overseeing what will be the Grand Canyon Escalade.
When complete, this gondola will start on the east end of Grand Canyon and glide visitors down a 1.6-mile tram to the Canyon floor, dropping them off at what will be a raised walkway at the confluence of the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River.
In an interview with 3TV, Whitmer said visitors will be able to grab a snack, stroll along the river's edge, then ride back to the Rim where 400 acres will be developed into hotels, restaurants, stores, artist studios for Native Americans and a Navajo land discovery center. 
 "It would not benefit the park whatsoever," said Martha Hahn, chief of science and resource management for Grand Canyon National Park
Hahn told 3TV the project would ruin the view that so many come to see, at all hours.
"In that area itself, night has been registered as one of the darkest night skies in the lower 48 states. That would change. Lights would be visible. We'd be able to see the area not only from the South Rim, but the North Rim," said Hahn. "So at night you'd see it, and during the day you'd see it."
"I think it's nonsense," said Whitmer. "From the South Rim, we're a good 8 to 10 miles away from any viewing point. You'd have to have super human vision to be able to see the development."
Another concern for park service officials is the fragile ecosystem in that area. Hahn said there's an endangered species of fish and a scarce water supply.
"We're going to make sure it's a premiere environmentally sensitive development. We're going to use the latest technology, green technology," said Whitmer.
Controversy also lies with the native tribes, according to Hahn. She said this area is sacred ground for the Zuni, Hopi and Navajo, who believe their ancestors originated from this point.
"It would be an imprint that could not be reversed," said Hahn.
Back at Mather Point, visitors had mixed emotions about the project.
"I think it's better if a lot of people get to go down and see the geology of the Canyon first hand, rather than taking the word of scientists as to what it means or how it was formed," said Monroe.
"If you start offering commercialism on that level, where do you stop? I mean, if you put in a gondola, next thing you know, you're going to have a couple of hotels on the way down," said Gallagher.
The Navajo council still has to approve the Escalade, which developers expect to happen next year.