The U.S. Forest Service on Friday denied a request by the town of Tusayan, Arizona, for road and utility easements for a development project that would have added 2,200 homes, a luxury resort and spa, and 3 million square feet in retail space to the town six miles from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. The decision is a major rejection of one of two highly controversial proposals threatening the park and its surroundings.
Tusayan, population 580, had worked with Italian developer Stilo on the project, which critics said would drain the aquifer under Tusayan-an aquifer that also feeds springs that run into the Colorado River, as well as the famous waterfalls at Havasu Falls.
“Based on information received in the record, I have determined that the Tusayan proposal is deeply controversial, is opposed by local and national communities, would stress local and [Grand Canyon National] Park infrastructure, and have untold impacts to the surrounding tribal and national park lands,” Kaibab Forest Supervisor Heather Provencio wrote in a letter to Tusayan Mayor Craig Sanderson on Friday.
In a press release, the Forest Service cited 2,447 unique comment letters, 85,693 form letters, 86 comments connected to a blog, and two petitions with a combined 105,698 signatures, as well as 35,000 additional comment letters received after the close of the initial formal scoping period, “the vast majority” of which opposed the Forest Service authorizing the easement.
“By denying Tusayan’s permit request for utility and development easements, the Forest Service is saying that preservation of one of America’s grandest landscapes, enjoyed by people from around the world, is paramount,” American Rivers president Bob Irvin said Friday. American Rivers in 2015 named the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon America’s most endangered river.
Former Tusayan Mayor Greg Bryan called the decision “a travesty and abuse of power by the Forest Service” in an interview with Phoenix’s 12News. Bryan had been working on the project for almost a decade and said Tusayan had spent “a couple hundred thousand dollars” to work with the Forest Service on the easement.
Andy Jacobs, spokesman for Stilo Development Group USA, said in March 2015 that the company and town weren’t necessarily counting on the aquifer to supply water for the development, and that they had explored other options such as bringing water in by truck or train, or using a former coal slurry pipeline to draw water directly from the Colorado River near Laughlin, Nevada.
But water is in short supply in the desert Southwest, and the Colorado River is claimed. Tusayan’s wells have been drained, and Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent David Uberuaga said two years ago, “Why are we considering further development when to this day we’re still hauling water into the town of Tusayan for the existing buildings?”
Although Jacobs said that the project was on standby, the Forest Service’s decision does not prohibit Tusayan from submitting another proposal to expand the town in the future. American Rivers president Bob Irvin said Friday that “any future expansion should only occur if there is a clear plan for providing a sustainable water supply for the expansion, one that guarantees no harm to the already stressed aquifer on the South Rim.”
Tusayan’s is the second proposal threatening the canyon. At the east side of the canyon, a development group partnered with members of the Navajo Nation to build a gondola from the rim to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. The $1 billion Grand Canyon Escalade project would ferry up to 10,000 visitors a day nearly mile from the edge of the canyon to a walkway constructed along the river. That proposal, too, is in limbo after the Navajo Nation last year elected a new president, Russell Begaye, who is opposed to the Escalade.
“It is not in the best interest of the Navajo Nation and the Navajo people,” he said last spring after taking offce. “If opinion is divided, we don’t want to do it.”
Photo of Grand Hotel in Tusayan, Arizona, by Grand Canyon National Park