It’s a debate that has spanned years and centers on 7,392 feet near one of the nation’s most popular national parks.
And the big vote on a proposal to build a 1.4-mile tram and other tourist attractions at the east end of the Grand Canyon could come as early as next month.
The Navajo Nation Council will formally consider the Grand Canyon Escalade for the first time in its fall session. Navajo lawmakers could begin debate on the plan in committees as early as late September. The full legislative body will likely take up the issue October 17, according to activists on both sides.
The $1 billion project includes restaurants, hotels and stores around a gondola that’s designed to carry thousands of people a day to a river walk on the canyon floor. There would also be a Navajo cultural center and a restaurant.
Once completed, up to two million people are expected to visit the site, according to developer estimates.
Although 5.5 million people visited the Grand Canyon last year, relatively few make it to the canyon floor.
“They either have to ride a mule or hike or do a river trip, and so many people don't have that kind of time or money,” said developer Lamar Whitmer.
The project, on Navajo land just outside the boundaries of the national park, is near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers.
“The rivers, where they meet, that is where life comes from,” said Renae Yellowhorse of Save the Confluence, a group that opposes the project.
Yellowhorse grew up on the Navajo land and says the site is sacred.
“These areas are priceless. They're not worth the destruction and the genocide actually of our cultural beliefs,” she said.
However, Yellowhorse acknowledges there is no formal written record of the site’s sacred status.
“That research has been done. We don't impact any listed sacred sites,” said Whitmer. “The confluence itself is considered sacred, and we don't go into the confluence. We don't go to the confluence. We pulled back so that people can see it but respect it.”
The project has divided members of the tribe. On one side: those who want the estimated 3,500 jobs and a share of the revenue. On the other: those who want to keep this place the way it is.
With a vote looming, groups who oppose the project have been ramping up their efforts. American Rivers posted a 3D-graphical representation of the project on YouTube late last month.
Whitmer, the developer, called the video “scare tactics” and “at least 10 or 20 times scale.”
"I think they all ought to be drug tested," he said of the video’s creators.
If approved, the gondola and other attractions would be ready to open by May 2020, Whitmer said. However, that date could be stalled if one of the opposition groups files a lawsuit.
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