Just a few months ago, opponents of two major developments near the Grand Canyon seemed like they could relax, after the Forest Service shut down a proposal to build 2,200 homes and a luxury resort six miles from the South Rim and a new administration for the Navajo Nation expressed opposition to a massive tourist center proposed for the east side of the canyon, the centerpiece of which would be a tram from the rim to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. But now the latter project, known as Grand Canyon Escalade, has moved onto the front burner with the submission of a bill to earmark $65 million for development and approval to enter into a contract with the Arizona developers who want to build the tram.

What happens next is anyone’s guess, as the Navajo Nation has been split by the proposal. In spring 2015, newly elected president Russell Begaye said he was against the plan. “When you talk about Escalade or any projects out there, we need to involve…the voice of the local people, rather than allowing big corporations to make those decisions,” he said. “Yes, we’re trying to create jobs, but we’re doing it in the wrong places and in the wrong way, and [Escalade] is one of those.”

On the other side are those who point to endemic poverty and a lack of economic opportunity for those living in the Nation, reasons cited by tribal councilman Ben Bennett in his new bill. (Read a summary here and the full text here.) However, the Navajo Nation would receive just 8 to 18 percent of the Escalade revenues, depending on visitor levels, while the developer would pocket the rest.

The outcry against Bennett’s bill and Grand Canyon Escalade has been so strong, it crashed the website of Save the Confluence, a group opposed to building on the ground considered sacred by the Hopi, Navajo, and others. With a short (five-day) comment period ending September 3, opponents are scrambling to make their voices known.

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Escalade would have a significant impact on the canyon, with somewhere between 800,000 and 2 million visitors a year. It would include 5,000 feet of restrooms at the bottom of the canyon and a “river walk,” plus an RV park, airport, restaurant, retail shops, and five-star hotels. River and helicopter tours would be a part of the package–of particular concern to rafters and kayakers, who’ve been dismayed at the air and river traffic surrounding Grand Canyon Skywalk at the other end of the canyon.

“River travelers will often travel through this area at night to avoid being bombarded by the clatter of incessant helicopter, fixed wing aircraft and river boat rides that are part of the helicopter tours,” writes River Runners for Wilderness. “The real potential exists for similar types of activities to occur at the Escalade tramway location, along with solid waste and restaurant waste removal problems, and a string of new light pollution lighting up the tramway facilities.”

Although the National Park Service had no comment, Kevin Dahl of the National Parks Conservation Alliance told National Parks Traveler, “It is no surprise that the Scottsdale developer who envisions great profit from constructing a huge resort hotel and tramway on this beautiful and remote rim of the Grand Canyon is trying again to get the Navajo Tribal Council to literally buy in to his scheme, despite having been turned down before and despite opposition from the current Navajo administration.

“NPCA has grave concerns that if this plan goes forward there will be huge environmental impacts, such as damage to Blue Spring from pumping groundwater and disposing sewage. The spring is the perennial source of water for the Little Colorado River and the only remaining breeding habitat for an endangered fish, the Humpback Chub. The resort would bring noise and light pollution to one of the most isolated and pristine parts of the canyon.”

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To comment on the new bill and Grand Escalade, send your thoughts to the Navajo Nation at comments@navajo-nsn.gov.

For AJ’s take on the Grand Canyon Escalade, read Brendan Leonard’s essay, Dear Grand Canyon Gondola Developers: Can We Have One on Mt. Rainier Next?

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