Thursday, April 16, 2015

Grand Canyon in Trouble?

The Grand Canyon, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2015. Photography: Bill Hatcher
"You don't want to anger the Holy Beings there," says Delores Wilson. She grew up on the rim of the Grand Canyon, on the western edge of the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, and she is worred about a $500 million commercial develpment project, including a high-tech gondola, to be built from the rim to the river of this national treasure (David Roberts, "Grand Canyon on the Edge," Smithsonian Magazine, March 2015).

Smithsonian Magazine, March 2015.
I've always stood in awe at the Grand Canyon, like everyone else who has witnessed its majesty.   I can't imagine growing up there and "knowing every wrinkle of its landscape."  The Grand Canyon seems to defy intimacy. It seems too enormous, too daunting for humans to grasp, too overwhelming in its geography and mysteries.

But Delores Wilson and her extended family and kin knew it. Knew it intimately.  They herded sheep there when they were kids. They climbed the rocks and canyons down to the sacred confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. It's a holy site to them, the place from which they came and to which their spirits go when they die.  To this day, they know it, respect it, honor it.

As writer Roberts recalls in his excellent article, when Teddy Roosevelt declared the Grand Canyon a national monument in 1908, he wisely noted: "Leave it as it is.  You cannot improve on it.  The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it."

The $500 million Escalade project is contested for this very reason.  It claims to be improving on a magnificent work of nature.  But Wilson and others think TR was right: "Man can only mar it." 

Roberts says "the proposed project will build a recreation and transport facility featuring a 1.4 mile tramway equipped with eight-passenger gondolas that would carry as many as 10,000 people a day down to the rivers, with new roads, hotels, gift shops, restaurants and other amenities."

It's a huge project and it has divided the Navajo community. The Hopi, Zuni, Hualapai and Havasuopai are equally engaged.  Many see jobs and profits from increased tourism. Others, like Wilson, see man-made changes to the land and to ancestral holy shrines, as well as major environmental risks. The national park officials, park visitors and environmental advocates share Wilson's concern. "This fight," says Navajo activist Darlene Martin, "is for future generations.  And for my ancestors."

I wasn't aware of this fight until I read the March 2015 issue of Smithsonian Magazine at my Dentist's office.  It's how I became aware of the Arctic region and it's geopolitical and environmental complexity and dangers a few years back. I still write about the Arctic, rich in oil and gas resources, and now more highly contested and in the news than ever.

I suspect it will be the same with the Grand Canyon. Other commerical projects, in addition to this Escalade project, are also in the works, such as a huge construction project in Tusayan, the entrance to the park.  Taken together, the Tusayan and Escalade developments are "unprecedented," says Dave Uberuaga, superintendent of the park.  "These two projects constitute the greatest threat to the Grand Canyon in the 96-year history of the park."

The American public needs to pay attention to these developments. We need to think about what these man-made changes will mean to the Grand Canyon, also a World Heritage Site.  The Smithsonian has been ahead of the curve in addressing and raising public awarenes of  some of the major environmental and heritage preservation issues of our time. We need to add the preservation of the Grand Canyon to our list of environmental issues that need help from the bottom up, literally and figuratively.

David Roberts, "Grand Canyon on the Edge, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2015, pp. 59-69 and p. 92.

A Grand Canyon visit. 

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