You Spoke Out. The Grand Canyon Won.


Grand Canyon | Sinjin Eberle

It would be challenging to find anyone who claims that the Grand Canyon is not one of the most awe-inspiring and magnificent landscapes on the planet. Although, according to Yelp, some people may not fully appreciate the extent of its awesomeness, most people, and certainly the majority of the 5.5 million visitors a year would attest, it is a pretty neat place.

In 2007, I was fortunate to walk across the canyon, rim-to-rim, with a small group of intrepid hikers. The instant your boots cross the threshold between the flat benches that form the rim and edge of the steady descent into the canyon itself, your perspective on everything changes – the crunch of your footsteps on the gravel becomes much more audible, the bounce of your pack as the elevation declines becomes a bit more rhythmic, and you start to notice things that you can’t see from the rim – the nooks and crannies that give a place with so much grandeur and expanse it’s character and romance. The Grand Canyon sits smack dab I the middle of a huge, dry, high-altitude desert, but the intimate spaces, the seeps, springs, and waterfalls that cling to life in this harsh world, provide the life and imagination a place to thrive, survive, and prosper.

Grand Canyon - Ribbon Falls | Sinjin EberleRibbon Falls along the route from the North Rim to Phantom Ranch

As author Kevin Fedarko proclaims, the Grand Canyon should be one of the most valuable, and protected, parcels of real estate in the country. As a World Heritage Site and one of the Natural Wonders of the World, the landscape has earned the accolades and respect around the globe. But as he also points out, the canyon itself is surrounded by threats from all four points of the compass and above. Because of the unprecedented assault on the sanctity of the canyon, American Rivers teamed up with local partner Grand Canyon Trust and listed the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon as Americas Most Endangered River in 2015.

The threats we identified in the listing were daunting – a proposal to build a resort development on the East Rim of the canyon, next to one of the most sacred sites to nearly a dozen Native American tribes, where a tramway would shuttle up to 10,000 people per day down to river level, and a restaurant and gift shop would await their money. Uranium mining around the circumference of the park, which currently and historically has created a pathway for radioactively contaminated water to flow to the Colorado River, was restarting operations. And finally, a proposal to expand the sleepy little village of about 600 residents, Tusayan, into a substantial resort destination, with 2,200 new homes, a couple million square feet of commercial space, a dude ranch and a European-style spa less than 10 miles from the Park entrance, all without a clear plan of where their water would come from.

Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga has stated that while the Escalade project (the tram) may be the most visible and obnoxious threat to the experience of the Grand Canyon, it was the Tusayan proposal that would cast the longest term and most irreparable harm to a wide expanse along the South Rim. Decades of hydrologic study has already linked existing groundwater withdrawal from Tusayan as diminishing the natural groundwater flows within the canyon itself. This groundwater is what feeds the life-sustaining micro-oases tucked within the small spaces along the South Rim. Places like Hermit Springs, Indian Gardens, and the blue waters of Havasu Falls – features directly at risk from irreversible harm to the groundwater along the South Rim.

Grand Canyon IG tree | Sinjin EberleLush oasis at Indian Gardens – a welcome sight for hot hikers

But since we listed the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon as Most Endangered in 2015, two significant things have happened. First, in May of 2015, newly elected Navajo Chairman Russel Begaye declared that the tram project would not happen on his watch – at least if he had anything to do with it. Last week, the Forest Service flatly denied the town of Tusayan’s application for right-of-way permits for roads and utility easements that would have cleared a major obstacle for the expansion to move forward. Without these easements, the town does not have permission to develop across Forest Service land, which surrounds the town on all sides.

Although representatives from the development group in charge of the town had stated publicly that they would not use groundwater for the expansion, almost nobody believed that they had any other option. On top of that, Stilo never put forth a comprehensive, public plan for how they would provide water to the increased number of thirsty mouths, while protecting the fragile groundwater directly connected to the canyon. As a result, when the Forest Service opened the public comment period and held public meetings in the area to gather feedback on the project, the vast majority of the comments they received were against the proposal.

According to Kaibab National Forest Service Supervisor Heather Provencio, they received more than 105,000 petition signatures, as well as more than 35,000 letters on the proposal, with the vast majority of those opposing the proposed roads and infrastructure.

You spoke out. The Grand Canyon won.

When I think back to my traverse across the canyon, it is the kind features that were spared by this decision that stand out the most. Ribbon Falls (sacred to the Zuni), Indian Gardens and Havasu Falls (both important to the Havasupai), Elves Chasm, and so many more. These are the places that cool the skin and refresh the mind. These are the places of maidenhair ferns and Canyon Tree Frogs. These are the places of intimate beauty.

Grand Canyon - Bright Angel Creek | Sinjin Eberle

The very character of the canyon is what we all just stood up for – but as David Brower once noted, the immediate threat may be gone for now, but the place where the project was proposed does not disappear. The Confluence will not go away, Tusayan will not go away (and there is certainly a need for more hotel beds near the Park), the Uranium in the ground will not go away. Case in point – there is scuttlebutt on the Navajo Reservation that the proponents of the tram project are back, and leaning on local legislators to push through permissions to build the project. But the message is that if development is to happen near one of our most treasured natural landscapes, that it must be done in a thoughtful, deliberate, and public way in order to protect the very reasons why the place is so precious to begin with. Without that, deterioration of the experience and quality of our most important natural landscapes is a non-starter.

Grand Canyon Point Imperial | Sinjin EberlePoint Imperial, Grand Canyon National Park

15 Responses to “You Spoke Out. The Grand Canyon Won.”

NormH

Rather than a victory, I see the decision by the USFS to nix Tusayan expansion as a lost opportunity by environmentalists and the NPS. If Tusayan was allowed to grow it could have provided a framework for removing vast amounts of infrastructure from within the park (housing, stores, hotels even roads). Seriously reducing commercial development and government support infrastructure (housing, schools, roads, services) on the south rim has long been a worthy goal by NPS and environmentalists alike. If I had a choice, I would take a larger Tusayan if I could significantly reduce the development clutter on the South Rim. As I see it, both the NPS and environmentalists couldn’t see the forest for the trees on this issue and might have just shot themselves in the foot. They both made the Chamber of commerce in Flagstaff very happy, indeed.

Anne Ambler

Come now, NormH, do you seriously believe that commercial development on the South Rim, some of which is probably historic, would be removed just because there’s development 10 miles away? Get real! No, the big development at Tusayan would simply add on. It is time to just say “no” if we hope to preserve the Grand Canyon in anything close to the way millions of years of natural forces have made it.

    Pablo M.

    Anne – there are over 2,000 people living in the Park, and you would be horrified to see some of their housing conditions. NPS should have been at the table to allow for responsible development as Norm H said, to return much of the park infrastructure to its natural environment and allow more opportunities for housing where it belongs – on private property outside the park boundaries.

Joel L

The opportunity is not lost. This developer (and possible future developers) have simply had “carte blanche” denied. If they think more holistically and responsibly in the future (i.e., not like most developers), something could still be built – sustainably and beneficially to the whole environment, not just their pocketbooks.

As has been noted elsewhere: “The decision does not entirely rule out the proposed mega-resort or any other development. The Forest Service simply found that the proposal, as submitted, fails to meet minimum requirements for not interfering “with the use of adjacent” federal lands. Supervisor Provencio’s letter to Tusayan emphasized that any new application would need to demonstrate how the proposal addresses Forest Service concerns and criteria.”

    MalcolmZ

    No one is commenting on where the water would come from for these mega-developments. It CANNOT be groundwater, because that would impoverish the canyon ecosystems and there probably is not anywhere near enough anyway. Do they plan to do tertiary recycling? Drinking sewage is not attractive to most people, although most of us do it in very dilute form all the time. I am reminded of Powell, who first ran the river (with one arm and wooden boats!), who famously tore up a prepared speech at a development conference after listening to people, and said something like “You are fantasizing–THERE IS NOT ENOUGH WATER FOR WHAT YOU WANT TO DO”.

ROD

I have not made the journey as yet.
But my imagination runs wild.

Jim Mackert

Every place on earth is not suited to build a Las Vegas type metropolis. Nor is it wise ( in my opinion)to do so. Indeed the Grand Canyon is one of the most beautiful and awe inspiring natural wonders of the world. This is why wealthy developers want to build there. I hope common sense and Good Conservation practices will continue to win out and guide us in protecting the wonderful gifts nature has blessed us with.
Surely the development of this area will destroy the very beauty and solitude that is now the attraction.

Bob Hershey

Whatever is done in the future must be subjected to a full blown environmental impact study which is much more rigorous and comprehensive than an environmental impact statement. I worked in the nuclear power world so I am aware of the difference. Anything less would be absolutely unacceptable (and irresponsible).

robert veloz

I was fortunate enough to see this great sight…Thank you for your efforts..at first sight, it truly takes your breathe away.

Bon

Have been hiking this place of inspiration since 1973 and to this very day my heart fills in wonder every time I come. I am grateful for this and to all helped in protecting the Grandest of canyons

Katherine Glascock

The careful study of its limited and precious resources, water in particular as has been cited, and full engagement of all who value our Grand Canyon is what has brought us here. Let us continue to be protective of its place in our lives, as a sacred site, as a natural wonder. We must not give it away to money making enterprises. We are prone to shape everything, nature’s gifts among them, for our own convenience: degrading, eventually losing that which is so irreplaceable.

Richard

There is a very simple solution. The Government should simply tell the whole town it has to be moved due to the Federal law allowing it to do so for a specific reason. Since this town is a hazard to the health of the canyon and its environs it must be moved at least 30 miles away where the Government has found a place suitable for the towns needs.

Jama Williams

Thank you for the enduring efforts that you make to protect the Grand. It is a place like no other. We are all indebted to you.

I am growing tired of the trend to make our pristine places more and more accessible. It’s sadly ironic that the Canyon is just too beautiful for its own good. At some point we are going to have to realize that there is a human carrying capacity that we are exceeding.

The solutions would be challenging and controversial but if I were King, there would be less people in that Kingdom.