FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — WHEN I worked as a white-water guide at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I was often struck by how many passengers concluded their odyssey through the most iconic landscape in the United States by invoking the very same epiphany. At the end of each two-week, 277-mile journey down the Colorado River, someone would often come up to me and declare that the canyon was “America’s cathedral — a church without a roof.”
That image never failed to strike me with the indelible force of poetry and truth, because if there is a space of worship in this country that qualifies as both national and natural, surely it is the Grand Canyon.
Unfortunately, this idea of a tabernacle that is marvelously open, but also precariously vulnerable, is also a useful metaphor to capture what is unfolding this summer as the canyon’s custodians confront a challenge that some are calling one of the most serious threats in the 95-year history of Grand Canyon National Park.
To be precise, there is not one menace but two. And many of the people who know this place best find it almost impossible to decide which is worse, given that both would desecrate one of the country’s most beloved wilderness shrines.
On the South Rim plateau, less than two miles from the park’s entrance, the gateway community of Tusayan, a town just a few blocks long, has approved plans to construct 2,200 homes and three million square feet of commercial space that will include shops and hotels, a spa and a dude ranch.
Among its many demands, the development requires water, and tapping new wells would deplete the aquifer that drives many of the springs deep inside the canyon — delicate oases with names like Elves Chasm and Mystic Spring. These pockets of life, tucked amid a searing expanse of bare rock, are among the park’s most exquisite gems.
It’s a terrible plan, but an even deeper affront resides in the story of how the project came about.
In the early 1990s, the Stilo Group, based in Italy, began buying up private parcels inside the Kaibab National Forest, which is adjacent to the park. The group recently worked in partnership with Tusayan business owners to incorporate the town, and then to secure a majority of seats on the town council and control over local zoning.
It was a smart and effective strategy. But it also transferred to a small group of investors the power to irreparably harm the crown jewel of America’s park system.
Perhaps the only thing more dismaying is that the second threat is even worse.
Less than 25 miles to the northeast of Tusayan, Navajo leaders are working with developers from Scottsdale to construct a 1.4-mile tramway that would descend about 3,200 feet directly into the heart of the canyon. They call it Grand Canyon Escalade.
The cable system would take more than 4,000 visitors a day in eight-person gondolas to a spot on the floor of the canyon known as the Confluence, where the turquoise waters of the Little Colorado River merge with the emerald green current of the Colorado. The area, which is sacred to many in the Hopi and Zuni tribes, as well as Navajo people, would feature an elevated walkway, a restaurant and an amphitheater.
Opposition, which is furious, includes a group of Navajos who accuse the developers of tricking fellow tribesmen into supporting the project with misleading presentations. While the developers argue that the entire project would lie within the reservation, the park service suggests that it might intrude into the park and would not be allowed. Whichever is the case, the project would be a travesty.
The park’s superintendent, David Uberuaga, who says he spends a majority of his time battling developers and other threats to the park, says the proposal represents “a real and permanent” danger because it “will change the landscape for all future visitors.”
The driving force behind this is a developer and political consultant from Scottsdale, Ariz., R. Lamar Whitmer. He argues that the tramway will improve the canyon because the park service offers its visitors nothing more than “a drive-by wilderness experience.”
“The average person can’t ride a mule to the bottom of the canyon,” Mr. Whitmer recently told The Los Angeles Times. “We want them to feel the canyon from the bottom.”
That statement is wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin. But a good place to start is with the fact that Mr. Whitmer is conjuring a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
“We have multiple ways for people of all ability levels to experience the canyon, whether it’s taking a slow trip on the river, riding one of the burros, hiking the trails, or even flights or helicopters,” said Bob Irvin, president of the conservation group American Rivers. “But if we start building gondolas and other forms of development, we lose much of what makes the Grand Canyon so special. It would be a devastation, a sacrilege, to build that structure there.”
That word, sacrilege, may sound a bit overblown — but only to the ear of someone who has never been afforded the chance to grasp, firsthand, what makes this place so utterly unique, a landscape without antecedent or analog.
Although it is not the first, nor the largest, nor the most popular of America’s national parks, the Grand Canyon is nevertheless regarded as the touchstone and the centerpiece of the entire system. And rightly so. Because nowhere else has nature provided a more graphic display of its titanic indifference to the works and aspirations of man.
The walls of the abyss comprise at least 20 separate layers of stone that penetrate more than a mile beneath the rim. The bloodlines of that rock extend 17 million centuries into the past — more than a third of the planet’s life span, and about one-tenth the age of the universe itself.
Beneath those towering ramparts of unimaginably ancient rock, visitors are reminded that regardless of how impressive our achievements may seem, we are tiny and irrelevant in relation to the forces that have shaped the cosmos, and that we would thus do well to live humbly, and with a sense of balance.
That message may carry a special relevance to us as Americans, if only because we tend to be so impressed with our own noise. The canyon has things to say that we need to hear. It should therefore stand as axiomatic that the insights imparted by a journey into the abyss would be radically diminished, if not entirely negated, by making the trip inside a gondola.
In essence, what Mr. Whitmer’s plan would amount to is the annulment of a space whose value resides not in its accessibility to the masses, but precisely the reverse. It is a violation of the very thing that makes the space holy.
Buried within the Tusayan and tramway proposals is the belief that a tiny circle of entrepreneurs has the right to profit at the expense of everyone else by destroying a piece of the commonwealth — a landscape that is the birthright and the responsibility of every American.
That principle was first laid down by Teddy Roosevelt in 1903, when he delivered a speech on the South Rim of the canyon.
“I want to ask you to do one thing in connection with it, in your own interest and in the interest of the country — keep this great wonder of nature as it now is,” Roosevelt declared. “I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”
If what is now unfolding seems grotesquely at odds with Roosevelt’s message, it’s worth keeping in mind that this is hardly the first time something like this has happened to the canyon.
Back in the 1960s, the federal Bureau of Reclamation came within a hairbreadth of constructing not one but two colossal hydroelectric dams directly inside the canyon — a project that would have transformed the most magnificent stretch of the Colorado into a series of stagnant reservoirs teeming with power boats.
Oddly enough, one of the arguments used to justify that boondoggle was that flooding the canyon would serve the same purpose as a tramway: creating access — in this case not by moving people on the rim down to the river, but by moving the river closer to the rim.
The absurdity of that logic was exposed in 1966 when the Sierra Club took out a full-page ad in this newspaper asking if we should also flood the Sistine Chapel to enable tourists to get closer to the frescoes.
That campaign created a firestorm of opposition to the projects, and when Congress killed the dams, the victory marked a watershed moment in the history of wilderness conservation. It also underscored the principle laid down by Roosevelt: that the Grand Canyon should not be messed with — not now, not ever.
And therein, perhaps, lies the crux of the problem we are now facing.
Because the national park system has rightly been called this country’s best idea, we might assume that the parks themselves are sacrosanct. In the case of the Grand Canyon, this illusion of inviolability is further reinforced by the architecture of the terrain itself. If those walls fail to convey the weight of eternity, then nothing on earth can.
But as the Tusayan and tramway projects illustrate, the status of this park, like the status of all our parks, is as ephemeral as virga, the ghostly plumes of summer rain that stream from clouds above the canyon’s rim, only to evaporate before reaching the ground.
Conservationists often lament the inherent unfairness of fights like this. Whenever a developer is defeated, nothing prevents other developers from stepping forward, again and again. But for those who love wilderness, the loss of a single battle can mean the end of the war, because landscapes that fall to development will never return.
If you care about places like the Grand Canyon, there’s something inherently wrong about that. But there may be something reaffirming about it, too, because these threats call upon us to reassert our conviction, as a nation, that although wilderness is an asset whose worth may be difficult if not impossible to quantify, without it, we would be immeasurably poorer.
Every 15 or 20 years, it seems, the canyon forces us to undergo a kind of national character exam. If we cannot muster the resources and the resolve to preserve this, perhaps our greatest natural treasure, what, if anything, are we willing to protect?
Kevin Fedarko is the author of “The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon.”
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