Development or preservation: opponents of development at Confluence say project not good for families in Bennett Freeze area

Confluence Partners, L.L.C. hopes to build a gondola tramway down this canyon to the Confluence.  Ryan Williams/WGCN

Confluence Partners, L.L.C. hopes to build a gondola tramway down this canyon to the Confluence. Ryan Williams/WGCN

BODAWAY-GAP, Ariz. - "Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, and for all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American...should see."

Teddy Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, said that in 1903 about the Grand Canyon, which is now listed as a World Heritage Site.

The quote comes to mind when one stands at the edge of the Grand Canyon on the Navajo Nation, looking down at where the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River meet - the Confluence. The only way to get to this place, to see this view, is a two-hour trip on a dirt road into a remote and empty area known as the Bodaway-Gap Chapter, or on a boat down the Colorado River.

But the area is not as empty as it seems. Dotting the landscape are hogans,

corrals, an occasional ranch. There are sheep, cows, horses and elk ranging over the land; lizards, birds, bees and butterflies call this place home. There may be an endangered species of cactus called the Pedio cactus. People gather medicine and tobacco in the area and there are burial sites. The red paintbrush, among other purple and yellow flowers, peek out around the sage. Turning away from the canyon, sage, high desert flowers and blue sky stretch in three directions. At night, electric lights are noticeably absent.

The quiet is only broken by the constant drone of helicopters and planes flying people over the Confluence, which is under one of the tour corridors, a prized sight for people who can afford the cost of an air tour.

Confluence Partners LLC, from Scottsdale, Arizona, is counting on that interest at the Confluence for its proposed 420-acre development along the eastern rim of the Grand Canyon, which would include a gondola tramway delivering visitors to the canyon floor in about 10 minutes, a river walk in the canyon with an elevated walkway and a food pavilion. The area is located about 100 miles by road from Interstate 40 and Flagstaff, Arizona.

On the rim, Confluence Partners members said there will be a discovery center that will tell stories of tribes' relationships to the canyon, a multimedia complex and an estimated 47,000 square feet of retail and restaurants, which, in the future, could include hotels, motels, a RV park and a general store.

R. Lamar Whitmer, managing partner of Confluence Partners, previously said he believes opposition to the project from Navajos has lessened. In meetings with Navajo Nation lawyers, Whitmer said the lawyers said the Nation has every right to develop this area. A controversial chapter in October 2012 approved the project. The Navajo Nation Council would still need to approve the proposal.

Opponents say a corridor along the road leading to the rim will be impacted and may benefit the peope of the Navajo Nation the least. However, those who favor the development argue that the Navajo Nation people in the Bennett Freeze area need economic development - that the people need jobs.

"I want my people to have a better life," Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly told NBC News in February when asked about opportunities for the Navajo people if the development goes forward. "They need jobs, they need homes. They need good homes."

The Navajo Nation would pay for the road to the development, the power lines, the wells and the roads that the developers have promised to people's houses. The Navajo Nation would be required to build a community for the workers. But, ultimately, the developers, not the Nation, would control a 15 mile radius around the project, which opponents say adds up to about 576,000 acres. The developers would have the final say about all economic development within that acreage, and have control over the roads, power lines and everything else.

"We're building it with our money and they're going to own it and they're going to run it," said Jason Nez, who worked for seven years in the Nation's archaeology department. "It's scary... I'm going to build this in your backyard without asking you and you're going to pay for it and I'm going to make all the money."

Nez, who is from Coalmine south of Tuba City, worked for the Nation conducting home site surveys, waterline surveys and excavations. He has worked for the National Park Service and the Museum of Northern Arizona, conducting ethnographic interviews. Currently, he works for the Forest Service. His jobs for the past 11 years as he sees it have been to protect cultural resources.

"This is a cultural resource," he said.

Renae Yellowhorse, who has family that lives in the area and who survived the 50-year Bennett Freeze, has started a group called Save the Confluence, made up of Navajo families in the area who are opposed to the project and whose land would be affected if the project goes forward.

The road to the rim above the Confluence, which is now a two track dirt road that curves through the families' grazing area for their animals, would be paved. Only the developers could approve businesses in the area 2.5 miles to the north and 2.5 miles to the south of the road.

Yellowhorse said this would negatively affect the families who still graze animals who might want to incorporate and run a bed and breakfast, or Navajo people who might want to sell jewelry and pottery in stands along the road.

"Because of the non-compete for Navajo businesses," Yellowhorse said. "They could not do that."

Nez said it would be up to developers to decide what would be competition for the development, not the Navajo Nation.

"What if they decide that cattle and sheep are economic competition and they take them out of their exclusion zone?" Nez asked. "It's a big area. They could easily say, 'Oh, they're grazing too much, you need to take them out.' It changes grazing patterns. A paved road changes water flow. It changes the landscape."


Dave Uberuaga, superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, said he thinks most Americans believe that Grand Canyon should be the most protected piece of real estate in the country.

"If (the Escalade project) does become a reality, then I think it will be a travesty for the American people," he told NBC News in February.

Confluence Partners members have said that the National Park Service already allows river runners to desecrate the area by allowing boats to stop and vacationers to dip their toes in the turquoise water.

Nez said that argument is a distraction.

"I've played in the water, it's hot. I've hiked down, it's 100, it's 200, I swear it's 200 degrees and I'm running toward that blue water like a thirsty cow and just dive in," he said. "It is up to the individual on how they express their relationship with the creator. You can laugh in church, you can cry in church, there's nothing wrong with that. I think it's just a non-issue. We can work with the Park Service on that later. But building a tram down there is not going to stop people from playing in the water."

Project partners also say that opposition from the Park Service to the development is hypocritical because of the development of the South Rim and Phantom Ranch.

But Roger Clark, project director for Grand Canyon Trust, which also opposes the development, said that when the South Rim was developed, the Park Service did not exist.

"It was all private, commercial development," he said. "Even when the Park Service was created in 1916, this was not a park. It did not turn into a park until 1919. So really pointing the finger at what the Park Service has allowed is really misreading history."

Clark points to the significance and shared cultural value the area has for Native American tribes, 18 tribes call the area sacred, according to the Save the Confluence website.

"Since before the colonialists came in, this has been shared cultural commons with no individual tribe having sole say over it," Clark said. "It's shared in common."

While Shelly has said that the people can't go back to the old ways, Nez said leaders in Window Rock have no connection to the western side of the reservation.

"It's the same colonial mentality," Nez said. "I'm going to settle the west, they believe that. That is what they were taught in boarding school. They were taught that being an Indian is bad. They were taught that Indians are clowns, they are there for entertainment. They were taught that wilderness needs to be settled and man needs to conquer it. That is what they are bringing on us."

Whitmer has said in the past he believes there are only a handful of families standing in opposition to the development.

Yellowhorse is one of them. But she represents more than just one person. She represents her aunties, who have family and cousins, all people who have direct ties to the land in Bodaway-Gap, even though some of them had to leave to find opportunities in Fredonia, Cameron or Tuba City during the Bennett Freeze.

"Before everyone had a chance in 2009, it (Bennett Freeze) was lifted, the bans and everything, before people had a chance to realize that they could come back in and build and develop, the big giant corporations came swooping carpet baggers..." Yellowhorse said. "It's the outside influence, it's not our idea. Nobody from here said let's put a tram in the Grand Canyon. It would never occur to us. Ever."

But in the largest chapter on the Navajo Nation, in Bodaway-Gap, the people are spread out and voting power can be condensed in larger and more populated areas, like Cedar Ridge, where people who support the development live.

"All the people who live in the developed areas, along U.S. 89, they're able to pull together enough votes and enough influence, whereas people out here, what can we do?" Nez said.

The sacredness of the area to many Native American tribes, many of which signed a resolution opposing the project, has been disputed by the project partners. They say that the development would not be anywhere near Hopi's eagles' nests, the Hopi Salt Trial or springs in the area. But a map of the area shows that the roadway does run parallel to the Salt Trail and even crosses it in some places.

Leigh Kuwanwisiwma is the director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office. He is also the formal agent of notice on the intergovernmental compact signed and approved by the Navajo and Hopi tribal councils. He is the point of contact on any issues regarding the compact.

Kuwanwisiwma said the Hopi tribe secured a list of Navajo sacred sites on the Hopi reservation and agreed to work with the Navajo Nation to give its members access to those sites in perpetuity. The Hopi tribe provided a list of its sacred sites located on the Navajo reservation to the Navajo Nation and expected the same, but Kuwanwisiwma said the Navajo Nation Council's approval of the project would violate the compact. Those lists are each filed in federal court.

One of the areas listed for the Hopi is the Confluence. The Hopi Salt Trail is a central part of the Hopi's religious beliefs. The Salt Trail goes from the Hopi villages down into the Grand Canyon. The Confluence is significant because that is where the Salt Trail enters the bigger Canyon and is part of their pilgrimages. The Confluence is also spiritually important to the Hopi because it is the tribe's final resting place.

Unanswered questions

Project partners have said that water will come from the Bodaway-Gap Chapter. According to its website, developers say that the project is in an area with a large and self-replenishing aquifer and that water is scarce only because there has not been money to drill the wells and construct pipelines.

But Sinjin Eberle with the American Rivers organization said he has not seen any statement or plan by developers about how they would get water to both the rim development and the river level development.

"Some of the questions we thought of are, how do they get the water for the restaurant?" he asked. "How do they get the water for setting all the concrete pilings for the walkways at the bottom? How do they deal with sewage disposal at the bottom?"

Nez said the most recent comment he has heard from developers regarding sewage is that it will be out of sight.

"The only out of sight area is up the Little Colorado where the blue water is," Nez said.

Opponents of the project also have the following questions for the developers: how will you get workers down to the bottom of the canyon? How do you get bulldozers and cranes to the bottom? How do you keep rocks from falling into the river? What do you do with hazardous material that is used in construction? How do you do construction in the bottom of the canyon?

"Are you going to be flying helicopters to deliver workers?" Eberle asked. "If that's the case, are they going to be landing on the little island? They can't do that. That is Park Service stuff. How physically would you go about building this thing without impeding on the park? Because the park is certainly not going to be happy about this."

Whitmer did not respond to a request for comment to those questions.

Nez and Yellowhorse said that the canyon also provides safety, for their land and for their people.

"The shield protects the back, protects us from that direction so we can focus our energy east," Nez said. "We don't have to worry, this is the safest spot. We don't have to worry about anyone sneaking up behind us."

Development or not, use or preservation has always been a question that the park has struggled with during its existence. It is now a question that the Navajo Nation and its people struggle with, too.

"What they don't consider is for some people this is fine," Nez said. "(The people here) don't mind having a dirt road, they don't mind living with no electricity. (The developers) just have in mind that everyone in the world wants a paved road, everyone wants a power line. It's like, no, some people don't."

Yellowhorse looks out over the canyon, makes an offering and sees her home, a spiritual place that was shared with her by her relatives and a place she wants to leave for her family in the same way she has always experienced it.

"After 50 years, what's going to be left for my children and my grandchildren to deal with?" Yellowhorse asked. "Is it going to be pretty well maintained? Or is it going to be rust buckets hanging on a line that we don't want anymore?"


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