New Threat To Grand Canyon: Mega Mall at Tusayan Just Outside Southern Boundary of National Park
New David Leland Hyde Photograph: Clearing Sunset Near Vista Encontada, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Time Is Running Out: See Petition Below to Take Action Now to Stop Development That Will Alter Grand Canyon National Park Forever
Growing Up Wild
Starting when I was age four, my father, American conservation photographer Philip Hyde, and my mother, a self-trained ornithologist and botanist, took me on backpacks often more than a dozen miles into the wilderness in search of photographs to help establish national parks and wilderness areas.
(To see the photograph even larger or to order prints, go to “Clearing Sunset Near Vista Encontada, Grand Canyon, Arizona.”)
Dad also grew up watching his father compose and interpret wild places. My grandfather, Leland Hyde, a regionalist painter, depicted local scenes near the family home in Northern California. The Hydes also visited national parks when they took a drive across the rural countryside from San Francisco to New York. Dad first saw the Grand Canyon on that trip at age 11. With this first impression vivid in memory, during World War II on a furlough, he visited the Grand Canyon again with his sister, my aunt Betty. Dad later worked on a number of campaigns that took him down the Colorado River by Grand Canyon Dory, cousin of the drift boat, for the first time in 1956 and into the canyon on foot, mule or by riverboat at least a dozen more times in following decades.
A year before I was born, my parents explored the flooding Colorado River and side canyons after the completion of Glen Canyon Dam in 1964. That same year, Dad and a coalition of photographers, scientists, writers and filmmakers took a dory trip through the Grand Canyon to make a book to help save the canyon from two proposed dams, one just above the National Park and one below. With Time and the River Flowing: Grand Canyon landing on desks in Congress, full page ads in the New York Times and other major papers, an international letter-writing campaign and a groundswell of public support like the young environmental movement had not yet seen, the Bureau of Reclamation abandoned its plans to build the Grand Canyon dams.
Having had a childhood immersed in wilderness, I am a believer in wild country and silence for the power it has to build character. It is what has built the American character since before our Declaration of Independence.
The Wild Grand Canyon As Shaper of Character
If you take a helicopter or airplane into the Grand Canyon, it is more convenient, but less memorable. If I could take any of the tourists up on the North or South Rim behind the railings, making snapshots and give them all that I discovered about sedimentary rocks, erosion, myself and the world by investing the time to hike in the canyon, if I could give them the memory of what it was like to have a caring father hike the Bright Angel Trail with me as a teenager, they too would keep a piece of the Grand Canyon in their hearts forever.
My experiences on a river trip and hike from Phantom Ranch to the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail happened at the right moment to shape me as a young man defining my outlook on the world. Grand Canyon National Park worked on me, but the place we visited in the spring of 1979 has already changed and may not be the same as it was for much longer. Already overcrowding, airplane noise and wear and tear on trails, natural features and park infrastructure are overwhelming the underfunded National Park Service in Grand Canyon. For the majority of guests, their experience has diminished from immersion in a life-altering challenge and an up-close view of grandeur to the passive observation of a soon forgotten curiosity, like those found at a carnival or behind glass in a museum.
New Threats to The Wilderness Experience in the Grand Canyon
Today, three major threats surround the Grand Canyon: uranium mining, a proposed development with a gondola tram to the bottom of the Canyon at the eastern border of the national park, and the largest of all, a mega mall and resort larger than the Mall of America just outside the southern park boundary in the town of Tusayan. Because of these threats and water mismanagement, American Rivers has named the Colorado River the number one endangered river in the U.S. for three years in a row.
Though the Department of Interior banned new uranium mining claims in the Grand Canyon area for 20 years, pre-existing claims like the Canyon Mine carry on, despite opposition based on risks to groundwater, wildlife, endangered species and sacred sites of the Hualapai, Kaibab Paiute, Zuni, Hopi and Navajo tribes.
The pending Grand Canyon Escalade development and tramway on Navajo lands bordering the national park on the east has divided the tribe and is currently in debate in the tribal council. The tramway would slice through Navajo, Zuni and Hopi sacred land at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers. Nearly as great a travesty would be the visibility of the top of the tram and development from one of the most iconic views of the Grand Canyon, ironically called Desert View. The developer, R. Lamar Whitmer, said he wants to make this special part of the canyon easily accessible to the world. Next someone will want to build a tram to the top of Everest to allow everyone to experience the summit.
(To read more about the confluence and hiking over 32 miles to Cape Solitude where the confluence is best viewed, see these superb accounts by two online friends of mine: “Through The Grama” by Greg Russell of Alpenglow Images and “Pilgrimage To Solitude” by A. Jackson Frishman of Crest, Cliff and Canyon.)
The Marketing of The Grand Canyon Tourist Experience as the Ideal
Meanwhile, south of the national park boundary the U. S. Forest Service has opened a public comment period to end June 2, on whether it should approve the rights-of-way to pave and widen access roads providing for an 80 foot wide utility and footpath corridor through the Kaibab National Forest on the way into sections of speculative private land. The improved roads will pave the way for the quiet, recently incorporated company town of Tusayan to transform into a resort complex with three million square feet of commercial space including hotels, a luxury spa, a Western dude ranch, a Native American cultural center and boutique retail shops; as well as hundreds of private homes at a mixture of prices and a staging area for bus and air tours of the national park. These additions would greatly increase the burden of travelers in the already over-crowded national park with crumbling facilities.
For most of two decades, Italian owned Stilo Development Group has been quietly buying up private land around the village of Tusayan. About a decade ago, Stilo made a first attempt to build a resort at Tusayan, but Coconino County residents voted it down. Stilo then convinced the Arizona legislature to make an exception to the minimum population requirement of 1,500 residents for town incorporation. The village of Tusayan, population 558, incorporated and formed its own town council and planning board. Stilo and local air tour companies campaigned successfully to pack the elected town council with development supporters, who then approved a resort plan three times as large as the original voter rejected Canyon Forest Village.
Strategy Forty-Eight, the public relations firm for Stilo, on its website says it “helped Stilo develop a long-term strategy to build a positive corporate identity in town…” The PR firm’s “approach included targeted messaging, grassroots organizing, event planning and the production of a series of popular web videos during a successful political campaign funded by Stilo to incorporate the town in 2010.” Currently, on Tusayan’s Future Facebook page, Stilo is offering free tacos and the opportunity to “Learn more about the Tusayan Roadway Application and how to file a comment with the Forest Service.” Despite similar enticements by Silo several times a week, the majority of the Forest Service comments so far have been from all over the US, opposing the road improvements that will make possible a massive development close to the Grand Canyon.
Another Development in the West With No Plan for Water
The current proposed vacation complex still has no specific plan to supply the vast amount of water it will use. Drilling wells to tap groundwater could bring future lawsuits, but has not been ruled out. Arizona law requires that 100 years of water be available for any development in sensitive thirsty areas like Tucson, Scottsdale and Phoenix, but no restrictions exist around the vulnerable South Rim where most groundwater, seeps and springs source from two aquifers underlying the Coconino Plateau. Arizona law historically has separated surface and groundwater, but recent litigation in central Arizona along the San Pedro River has now legally established that surface and groundwater may be related, said Robin Silver, founder of the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity.
Silver also cited discharge analyses of two ecologically important Grand Canyon springs. Discharge flows from Cottonwood and Indian Gardens Springs have been decreasing since at least 1994. Though direct correlation has been difficult to establish because of the complexity of the two underlying aquifers, researchers have measured parallels between the small settlement already built at Tusayan and decreasing flows of the springs in the national park. National park officials and Havasupai tribal leaders have voiced concern that even small increases in groundwater pumping by any or all wells on the Coconino Plateau could deplete the more than 500 springs vital to life between the South Rim and the Colorado River. The aquifer-fed springs are also critical to the flow in Havasu Creek and its five waterfalls at the core of survival and tourism for the Havasupai Nation. The Forest Service is required to consider all of this in its cumulative effects analysis before approving the road rights-of-way.
Water for hotels and amenities at the South Rim inside the park comes by pipeline from Roaring Springs on the North Rim. Due to rock cracks, shifts, falls, traffic on the Bright Angel Trail surface above the pipeline and the age of the pipe, it breaks, leaks and has to be repaired six to 30 times a year, said Tim Jarrell, park maintenance chief.
Fishing Around For Water Options
Stilo representative Tom De Paolo said that other water supply possibilities for its mega resort include reversing and re-using the abandoned Black Mesa Pipeline that once carried coal slurry, coal mixed in water, from the Hopi Reservation to a power plant near Laughlin, Nevada. Water could also be trucked in or delivered by train, as done in other remote desert locations. Stilo has retained former U. S. Senator John Kyl as legal counsel to look into options.
“Pipeline is number one,” De Paolo said. “Rail is number two, truck is number three, groundwater is number seven. I haven’t thought up four, five or six yet.”
Endangering Endangered Species and Impacts to the National Park
Even if Stilo puts together a water scheme, the proposed development would infringe on wildlife and habitat and could jeopardize endangered species such as the California Condor, Northern Goshawk, Bald Eagle, Mexican Spotted Owl, American Peregrine Falcon and several species of bats and squirrels. Over 20 types of plants are listed on the Grand Canyon special status lists. Also threatened are a few flowering plant and animal species found only in the area.
The Center for Biological Diversity recently filed an emergency petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeking Endangered Species Act protection for the Arizona wetsalts tiger beetle and Macdougal’s yellowtop, a flower in the aster family found nowhere else on Earth besides the wet areas around South Rim seeps. The wetsalts tiger beetle is an important insect predator also endemic to springs of the Western Grand Canyon.
Besides threats to native flora and fauna, present national park facilities cannot sustain more visitors. Park facilities are currently $330 million underfunded and behind in key upgrades and maintenance. The National Park Service has considered cutting back the number of park visitors and indicated it may need to cut back air traffic over the canyon.
“It is a World Heritage Site, one of the Seven Wonders of the World—and that is not a place that needs additional development,“ said park superintendent David Uberuaga. “It is not a place to be entertained, but a place to come to connect to creation and this experience.” Uberuaga said the Tusayan development is the greatest threat in the 96-year history of the park.
Killing The Local Economy
The Stilo complex is expected to hurt the economy of neighboring Northern Arizona communities. The Flagstaff Council passed a resolution opposing the application to the Forest Service by the town of Tusayan for the road easements that would make expansion possible.
“Our hoteliers and our restaurateurs, our businesses here, we are the gateway to the Grand Canyon,” said Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce government affairs director, Stuart McDaniel. Representatives from Williams, Cameron and Valle, Arizona also believe their communities will be adversely affected by a massive center at Tusayan.
With opposition from surrounding towns, the National Park Service, the Havasupai Nation, a conservation coalition consisting of Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and Grand Canyon Trust, not to mention comments and letters from around the world condemning the expansion of Tusayan; will the Forest Service listen? The Kaibab National Forest has a track record of taking any opportunity possible to widen or pave roads. The Center for Biological Diversity is also currently commenting on and opposing a proposal by the Kaibab National Forest to open 291 miles of roads across 30,000 acres in the forest to motorized dispersed camping.
Take Action: Write the Forest Service or the White House
The Forest Service has a mandate to support many uses of its forests, not to allow forests and wildlife to be destroyed to pave the way for one use. It also has a mandate to consider all impacts. Regarding the Stilo development, the Forest Service must be mindful of spillover impact into the adjacent national treasure.
“The Kaibab National Forest continues to promote tribal participation in establishing agency management goals and activities,” said the 2013 Yearly Management Report. Readers who care about preserving the Grand Canyon and our national parks as they are, now is the time. Write the Forest Service before June 2, to make sure it lives up to its own publicity, or just fill out this handy, easy to fill out petition by the Center for Biological Diversity.
Perhaps with enough input from citizens, the Forest Service at the Grand Canyon will support the National Park Service in fulfilling its mission: “To conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
A Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument may also be possible. Arizona Congressional Representatives Raul Grijalva, Ann Kirkpatrick and Ruben Gallego wrote a letter in January to President Obama stressing the natural and economic importance of the Colorado River watershed and the serious threats it faces. Letters from readers to the White House would also help build momentum for a national monument. Future generations deserve to explore the Grand Canyon as it has been. Each visitor who is willing, deserves to experience the challenge and elation of immersion in the rugged wild of the Grand Canyon, like I did with my family growing up.