You Spoke Out. The Grand Canyon Won.
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.
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.
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.
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.