Grand Canyon Escalade: It’s Back

New Navajo Nation bill seeks to finance infrastructure associated with controversial tramway

Artist Martin Simpson's rendering of the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade, a tram which would carry up to 10,000 people per day to the floor of the canyon.
Artist Martin Simpson’s rendering of the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade, a tram which would carry up to 10,000 people per day to the floor of the canyon.

A bill introduced to the Navajo tribal government Monday evening has given new impetus to the controversial Grand Canyon Escalade project, a proposed cable tramway that could carry up to 10,000 people per day from the canyon rim to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers.

The bill would provide crucial financing and tribal authorization for the development, which in addition to the tramway would include a food pavilion, amphitheater and an elevated walkway on the canyon floor. Restaurants, hotels and a cultural center are planned for the canyon rim. The project would be built entirely on Navajo tribal land, but it would come within a quarter mile of the boundary with Grand Canyon National Park.

On Monday, Benjamin Bennett, a Navajo Councilman from Fort Defiance, Ariz., sponsored the legislation which seeks funding for infrastructure improvements related to the Escalade. The bill would allow the tribal government to finance $65 million to fund construction of a new, 27-mile road to the tram site as well as electric, water and communications facilities. Touting the employment opportunities the project would bring to the economically depressed western Navajo Nation, the bill states that between 8 percent and 18 percent of annual gross revenues from the Escalade would be paid to the tribal government, depending on visitor attendance. The developers would receive 82 percent to 92 percent of the project’s revenues. Initial fees collected by the tribe would be used to pay back the $65 million. Critics have pointed out that should the project fail to materialize, there is no guarantee that the tribal government will see a return on these infrastructure investments.

R. Lamar Whitmer of Confluence Partners LLC, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based developer behind the project, has been working with Navajo partners since 2012 to secure the permissions needed to move the project forward. In 2015, Russell Begaye was elected as the Navajo Nation president after running his campaign on an anti-Escalade platform. Opponents of the project, including the Navajo-run advocacy group Save the Confluence, celebrated Begaye’s election, but those in favor of development began lobbying to secure a two-thirds majority in the 24-member Navajo Tribal Council which could override Begaye's presidential veto of the bill. Now that the bill has been introduced, there is a five-day public comment period, which runs to September 3. It is not clear how soon the legislation will go to vote after the comment period closes.

“This bill moves us one step closer to no longer talking about this tramway as an abstract threat but rather as something that's concrete,” said writer Kevin Fedarko, an outspoken critic of the Escalade. “The prospect of what it will do to the integrity of the landscape and the canyon is almost beyond words.”

Critics have cited concerns over water and sanitation issues as well as increased river traffic in the form of new jetboat and helicopter tours.

Opponents are also concerned the project would negatively impact sensitive cultural sites along the canyon bottom, traditionally held as sacred by the Navajo as well as other tribes and pueblos in the region. The governors of the Zuni Pueblo, Acoma Pueblo and Laguna Pueblo have all come out against the project. The Hopi Tribe has vowed they would sue to block the development on the basis of an inter-tribal compact between the Hopi and Navajo that prevents either tribe from infringing on the other's sacred sites, and they would likely initiate court proceedings if the bill makes it through the Navajo Council.

"Think of your most holy place, a place that you cherish, and then imagine an outside influence coming in and wanting to change it forever," Renae Yellowhorse of Save the Confluence told C&K last month. "That's what we're up against."

Save the Confluence is asking concerned citizens to submit letters the Navajo Council during the public comment period. Other conservation groups have seconded their call, including American Rivers, which listed the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon as the nation's Most Endangered River in 2015, largely due to Escalade proposal. "People on the Navajo reservation noticed how much noise that listing created," Sinjin Eberle of American Rivers told C&K on Tuesday. "If there are a lot of comments that come into the Navajo Council this week, it could help sway council members to vote against the legislation."

The bill repeats the developer's estimates that the project would bring 3,500 direct and indirect jobs to the area, a prospect that resonates strongly in an area that suffers from over 44 percent unemployment. But Roger Clark of Grand Canyon Trust, a group that's actively working against the Escalade, told C&K he was concerned the estimated job numbers were overly optimistic. Additionally, nothing in the legislation dictates that the hiring must be done locally. "Who knows?" said Yellowhorse. "They may bring people from all over the world to work and not employ the local people."

"We certainly acknowledge the need for sustainable economic development on the west side of the Navajo Nation," Eberle said, "but it should be something the Navajo people elevate amongst themselves. Any development project should be Navajo-driven and not come from outside developers forcing a project upon them."

Neither Councilman Bennett nor Confluence Partners immediately returned C&K's request for comment.

–Digital comments on the bill may be e-mailed to comments@navajo-nsn.gov before September 3. Written comments may be mailed to: Executive Director Office of Legislative Services, P.O. Box 3390, Window Rock, AZ, 86515

— American Rivers has prepared a petition for the Navajo Tribal Council

— Read the summary text of the bill here

–Check out our feature story on the Escalade proposal with exclusive video from C&K editor Zak Podmore and photographer Will Stauffer-Norris’s trip to the proposed tram site on a flash-flooding Little Colorado River