At the rim of the Grand Canyon, busloads of Chinese tourists jostled on a recent day with twentysomething backpackers and an Amish family with rambunctious boys in suspenders and straw hats, all eager for a prime viewing spot.
They gazed out on a dizzying sight of receding canyons and sheer rock walls, with the Colorado River cutting though the canyon floor a mile down.
Generations of park managers have tried to preserve that natural vista, but officials here say a proposed development would alter the view.
Looking eastward from the canyon’s popular South Rim, visitors could soon see a hive of construction as workers build restaurants, hotels and shops on a distant mesa on the Navajo Indian reservation.
The developers also plan a gondola ride from those attractions to whisk tourists to the canyon floor, where they would stroll along an elevated riverside walkway to a restaurant at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers.
That project and a second, unrelated development proposed for just south of the canyon have set off alarms at the National Park Service, which sees them as the most serious threat the park has faced in its 95-year history.
The first would alter the natural beauty of the canyon and encroach on its borders. The second, a major housing and commercial development, jeopardizes the fragile ecology and water supply on the arid South Rim plateau. The Tusayan development would add 2,200 homes and 3 million square feet of commercial space to a town two blocks long.
Park officials say existing development around the park and the scarcity of water have already stressed the park’s ability to handle visitors. The new projects would only make matters worse.
“They are serious threats to the future of the park,” said park Supt. Dave Uberuaga. “When you have that size and scope of potential development that close to the park, it will impact our visitor experience.”
The Grand Canyon affords once-in-a-lifetime views, but it has always been difficult for anyone except seasoned hikers to reach the canyon floor. Most of the 5 million annual visitors stop at the rim, look out and move on without ever venturing into the canyon.
Native American tribes are changing that. Grand Canyon West, on Hualapai land, operates the Skywalk attraction, a popular glass walkway that juts out over the canyon. Since 2007, the tribe has offered helicopter tours that land on tribal property next to the river.
The proposed Grand Canyon Escalade gondola would afford a rare opportunity for tourists to reach the canyon floor, said developer R. Lamar Whitmer, who is working with the Navajo.
The park service offers nothing more than “a drive-by wilderness experience,” Whitmer said. “The average person can’t ride a mule to the bottom of the canyon. We want them to feel the canyon from the bottom.”
It’s at the bottom that the conflict lies, as the Navajo contend that they have rights to property above the high-water mark of the rivers.
Park officials say the Navajo are mistaken. Federal jurisdiction extends a quarter-mile on either side of the Colorado, the park says, and no development can occur any closer to the water.
For now, the park is waiting for the tribe to complete its planning process before providing an official response.
The project requires approval of the Navajo tribal government — and some within the tribe have voiced objections, particularly about the gondola’s terminus near the confluence of the rivers.
Tribal opponents believe the two rivers represent male and female, and where they meet is where life begins.
“That’s where our spirits go back to,” said Renae Yellowhorse of the group Save the Confluence. “My father passed away last March. That’s where he resides. If there is a development there, where are our prayers going to go?”
Two miles from the Grand Canyon’s front entrance is a project that park officials say is a more fundamental threat because they expect it to diminish the small amount of water found naturally on the arid Colorado Plateau.
The park’s main gateway community of Tusayan has approved plans for a development that would increase the town’s demand for water fourfold.
But the plans do not say where the water will come from. With Arizona suffering though its worst drought in 110 years of records, the park service says there isn’t enough water to sustain both wildlife and the new development.
“That kind of water just isn’t around there,” said Uberuaga. Yet the city continues “to pursue a full buildout and full development at whatever pace the developer wants.”
Water is already so precious that the park’s resident elk herd recently figured out how to operate the Grand Canyon’s new water faucets and began serving themselves.
The situation remained an amusing photo op until a young elk pair began to vigorously defend the water fountain, chasing away tourists.
The park currently imports all water for its South Rim hotels, restaurants and amenities from springs on the north side of the canyon. An antiquated aluminum pipeline threads 13 miles though the serpentine fissures on the canyon floor, then up a mile of sheer rock on the South Rim.
The pipeline regularly breaks down, requiring helicopters and burros to ferry crews at a minimum cost of $25,000 per service call.
The park would like to replace the water system, but the price tag — as much as $150 million — is more than twice the yearly construction budget for all 400 parks in the National Park Service system.
Tusayan developer Tom De Paolo and partners in Stilo Development Group, backed by Italian investors, have been trying to build at the Grand Canyon since 1991, when they began systematically acquiring private land within nearby Kaibab National Forest to site the development.
Thwarted for more than 20 years by a number of issues, including lack of water, the developers led campaigns to incorporate Tusayan as a city, giving it control of development within its boundaries, and to elect city officials who either work for the developer or a partner.
The town has the right to take water from the plateau’s aquifer, and their wells have caused water sources in the park to decline 10% in recent years. Park officials strongly oppose any new wells.
De Paolo said he has acquired water options from farmers along the Colorado River in Laughlin, Nev. From there, he said, a dormant coal slurry pipeline could be retrofitted to carry water to Tusayan.
To mend relations with park officials, De Paolo proposes using the pipeline to provide water to the Grand Canyon as well as afford it a corridor to run much-needed natural gas and telecommunication lines.
Still, he has not relinquished his leverage with the park: the possibility of tapping the aquifer.
“Why do we want to preclude an option that is available to us when we don’t have to?” he said.
Park officials are trying to persuade Tusayan to downsize its plans. And they intend to urge the U.S. Forest Service to carefully review a road easement across two miles of Kaibab National Forest to the site of the proposed development.
To Dave Nimkin of the National Parks Conservation Assn., the developments represent “profound and enormous threats to the park. It’s a grim forecast.”
Water is already a precious commodity.
The park has a stash of 13 million gallons in storage tanks on the South Rim, about an 18-day supply. And half of that must be kept in reserve for fire protection.
When water in the tanks drops to half of capacity, said Tim Jarrell, the park’s chief of maintenance, “we start to think about cutting back on the number of people we let in the park.”