Developers say Escalade project at Colorado River confluence on track

Looking upstream on the Colorado River from above the confluence. Confluence Partners, L.L.C. hopes to build a gondola from the canyon rim to the river as part of the Grand Canyon Escalade development on the western edge of the Navajo reservation at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. Photo/Confluence Partners

Looking upstream on the Colorado River from above the confluence. Confluence Partners, L.L.C. hopes to build a gondola from the canyon rim to the river as part of the Grand Canyon Escalade development on the western edge of the Navajo reservation at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. Photo/Confluence Partners

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - According to officials with the Grand Canyon Escalade development, this project is on track to go before the Navajo Nation Council for approval in June or at the latest in July.

If the project gets council approval by the end of June, and the project gets through the permitting process, the project's developers plan to begin construction in the summer of 2015 with the goal to begin operation in May 2017. The Navajo Nation took over leasing requirements from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, meaning approval and permits for a project like this comes from the Navajo Nation.

Confluence Partners, the project developer, refined the project to 420 acres located on the western edge of the Navajo reservation at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. The area is located about 100 miles by road from Interstate 40 and Flagstaff, Arizona.

The development's main attraction would be an eight-person gondola tramway, which would deliver visitors to the Canyon floor in about 10 minutes. The length of the tramway is approximately 1.6 miles with about a 3,200 foot descent. A river walk with an elevated walkway would be constructed on the Canyon floor with a food pavilion.

On the rim, a Navajoland Discovery Center, which would be overseen by an advisory board, has been added with an eye toward telling stories of Navajos' and other tribes' relationships to the Canyon. In addition, a multimedia complex and an estimated 47,000 square feet of retail and restaurants would be located on the rim. Future development could include a lodge hotel, boutique hotel, multiple midlevel motels (all of which could total about 900 rooms), an RV park and a general store.

An all-weather paved road would be constructed. Water, power and infrastructure would also be available for the local chapter to build a community about half-way out to the site.

Water for the project would come from Bodaway Gap.

R. Lamar Whitmer, managing partner of Confluence Partners, said over the last year and a half 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.

The president's office referred the Observer to Deswood Tome as a contact for this project. Calls and emails to Tome regarding the perspective of the administration and the Navajo Nation on the Escalade project were not returned.

Navajo Nation and economic development

The Navajo Nation will pay for the off sites, meaning they will lease the property to the Navajo Hospitality Enterprise. The Escalade project has a development agreement with the Hospitality Enterprise which will be titled to the Navajo Nation. The Escalade development will have a 50 year operating agreement.

"We have the right to operate it," Whitmer said.

According to the project partners, economic development is driving the Grand Canyon Escalade project and its location.

"It's about the people," Whitmer said. "The people in the Bennett Freeze area are suffering. They have 60-70 percent unemployment. You have people delaying this project when the need is so great. My main concern now is making sure we get it done on a timely basis so we don't lose another year of payroll for these folks."

Eunice Tso, another Confluence project management team member, said the leaders and delegates of the Navajo Nation want economic development, too, and are looking for ways other than coal to diversify the economy.

"The western side of the reservation does not have some of the same opportunities as the eastern side does," she said.

Agreements between project partners and the Navajo Nation specify a Navajo hiring preference. Whitmer estimates initially 2,000 people will be hired on site during construction with another 1,500 people hired once operations begin.

"We intend to spend a significant amount of money on job training, on scholarships and giving back to the community," he said.

Rumors of a casino in the area are untrue, Whitmer said, although he acknowledged that Navajo leadership has talked about it.

"We don't want a casino at this place," he said. "It would be inappropriate. Early on we decided that was not the way to go. Just like we decided we don't want an airport."

Whitmer estimated that 98 percent of the South Rim Grand Canyon business is by car and the 2 percent is air tours and busses.

"We made the decision an airport is more trouble than it's worth," he said.

Hopi and the confluence

Whitmer said the area the Hopi tribe considers sacred, the confluence of the Little Colorado and the Colorado rivers, would not be affected. He said the development of Grand Canyon Escalade will not be anywhere near their eagles' nests, the Hopi Salt Trail or springs in the area despite the Hopi belief that it will.

"We want the Hopi to understand we are not desecrating their part of the Canyon," Whitmer said.

Tso said the protection of cultural areas of each tribe is mandated in the 2006 intergovernmental compact between the two tribes and she believes the development is within the confines of the compact.

"I don't know what other concerns they may have other than saying the whole general area is sacred," Tso said.

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 both the Navajo and Hopi tribal councils. He is the point of contact on any issues that may arise on provisions in the compact.

"One of the things that is very significant that affects the Escalade project is upfront the compact is intended to recognize the members of each tribes' religious rights on each other's lands," he said

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. Those lists are each filed in federal court.

"The language I am looking at is that each tribe is to protect each other's sacred sites," Kuwanwisiwma said. "That was the agreement. It was really the way the tribes decided to settle out of court the land disputes."

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 the pilgrimages. The confluence is also spiritually important to the Hopi because it is the tribe's final resting place.

Kuwanwisiwma said the Navajo Nation should be fully aware that the confluence is part of the Hopi tribe's initial property claim against the Navajo Nation and when the compact was negotiated it was clear that that area was a sacred site that the Navajo Nation needed to protect.

"To now propose to hang a gondola down into the confluence was unacceptable to the Hopi people, totally unacceptable," Kuwanwisiwma said.

Supporters of the Escalade project contend the area is already used by river runners who stop at the confluence as part of river trips. Kuwanwisiwma said he believes there are 19 companies that run tours down the river in the Canyon.

"We're quite aware that one of the stopping areas is the confluence," he said. "But to use that argument against the Hopi is really unfair. Again, the issue on that is longstanding as far as the National Park Service permitting those tour companies down there."

In the early 90s, after he was elected, Kuwanwisiwma considered the tours stopping at the confluence and making hikes up the Little Colorado River, which is where the Hopi Salt Trail is. Half of the trail is in Park Service jurisdiction and the other part of the trail to the confluence is on the Navajo reservation. Former Hopi Chairman Ivan Sydney in the 90s formally asked the Park Service to limit hiking up the Little Colorado River by commercial tours.

"That was agreed to by the Park Service," Kuwanwisiwma said. "There are no more commercial hikes or tours sponsored by the tour companies going up the Little Colorado River Gorge."

But the Navajo Nation allows recreational hikes on the Hopi Salt Trail even though they have been alerted that the Hopi consider it a sacred site.

"In terms of the record of concern by Hopi, it is longstanding regarding the confluence," Kuwanwisiwma said. "The partners are really unfair to compare the Hopi tribe's effort at the confluence by comparing their development and the commercial river tours."

He added that the Hopi tribe has appeared before the river guides' river association at their trainings to express their concern and educate the river rafters about the significance of the confluence and the river to the Hopi people.

According to Kuwanwisiwma, Hopi Tribal Chairman Herman Honanie met privately with Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly on Feb. 10 in Window Rock. Honanie hand delivered a letter to Shelly requesting that Shelly and Arizona State Rep. Albert Hale, who is another management team member on the project, appear before the Hopi tribe. The letter asked that the Navajo Nation Council delay any action on the new master agreement for the Escalade project.

The Hopi tribe has not seen the new master agreement. Because of a confidentiality agreement with the confluence partners, Shelly said he was unable to release it to the Hopi. According to Kuwanwisiwma, Shelly has not responded to the invitation to appear before the Hopi tribe.

Kuwanwisiwma said his personal position, as director for the Hopi tribe's cultural preservation office and someone who was on the negotiating team for the compact, is if the Navajo Nation proceeds with the development without any consultation with the Hopi tribe, the Nation will willfully violate the provisions of the compact.

"There's a Hopi shrine right at the confluence that continues to be visited today," Kuwanwisiwma said. "As an agent of notice I take it pretty seriously how our office is committed to protecting Navajo sites on Hopi. Why aren't the Navajos doing it as far as the Escalade and the confluence? That is my direct question to President Shelly. He needs to answer to the Hopi people on that."

Bodaway Chapter vote

The Bodaway Chapter voted to approve the project on Oct. 3, 2012. Both Whitmer and Kuwanwisiwma, who said he was present at the meeting, said the vote was controversial.

"They questioned whether or not we had the votes, we questioned whether their vote was skewed," Whitmer said.

Kuwanwisiwma, in a write up of the meeting he sent to the Observer said that the vote taking was haphazard and unorganized. He said the final vote was recorded as 59 in favor and 52 opposed.

"My vote was counted, yet I am not an enrolled member of the Navajo tribe or a voting member of either chapter," Kuwanwisiwma said. "Based on this, shouldn't the results be called into question?"

Light pollution

Whitmer said the development partners are aware that light pollution is a concern to people who visit the Grand Canyon for a dark sky experience. The site can be seen with the naked eye from five view points on the east side of the Canyon.

"We're going to be sensitive," Whitmer said. "We're not going to borrow the laser from the Luxor. We're not going to put light shows on. We're going to try and minimize the light pollution."

Also, Whitmer said in Navajo culture constellations are important and the idea is to tell some of those stories to the public.

"It's a selling point," he said.

National Park Service

Whitmer said he will consult with the National Park Service when the agreement is done and the Navajo Nation Council approves it.

"We weren't far enough along to really go talk to them," he said. "Our documents are in the legislative process with the Nation and we're hopeful to have the Council act on it in June or July."

Whitmer said the Grand Canyon Escalade project will deal with development at the site in the same way that the National Park Service operates Grand Canyon National Park.

"After our first site visit, we agreed to go with an elevated walkway [at the bottom of the Canyon] because it is less intrusive and it's not going to disturb things," he said. "It allows us to control the grounds better. We pirated that from the Park Service."

In addition, the site will have self-contained wastewater and recirculating gray water.

"We're going to try and minimize the water use down there," Whitmer said. "We don't anticipate the [tramway] being operated at night. Phantom Ranch is 14 or 15 acres and we're three."

Project partners are considering whether they will have a storytelling amphitheater on the upstream side of the walkway but Whitmer said there will not be a restaurant.

"We want them to have prepared food and if they want to have a latte and watch the river go by, we invite them to do that," he said.

Whitmer said the goal is to not be dependent on summer visitors alone but to attract winter visitors to the Southwest as well.


Whitmer said outreach to Flagstaff and surrounding communities will begin this summer. He anticipates push back against the development will come from both environmental groups and business groups.

"I believe that is when you do outreach [after the deal is done]," Whitmer said. "I've talked to the river guides. I understand. They have a monopoly on people who want to see the Canyon from the bottom. If you don't want to hike or ride a mule, the only other choice you have is to take a river trip. I understand people who have business concerns because right now they have a regulated monopoly. Why would you want to have people cut into that?"

Tso said she is open to dialogue with groups to find out what their issues with the project may be.

"Is it aesthetics? What can we do about that?" Tso asked. "Can we paint the gondolas to blend in with the rock formations? Can we go with their recommendations for lighting?"

Whitmer said the development group is open to talking and hearing suggestions for design and cutting edge building practices.

"We're going to minimize the impact of the development," he said. "We'll be more environmentally sensitive than the South Rim is."

Discovery center

Whitmer said he wants all tribes who have a connection to the Grand Canyon to be a part of the stories told at the Navajoland Discovery Center. He said he is excited about the opportunity for visitors to learn about native cultures and their creation stories.

"We anticipate that people will spend four or five hours here and get a cultural experience, see the Canyon from the bottom up," Whitmer said. "We want them to be enriched."

"We want [the Hopi] to be a part of the Discovery Center, he added.

However, Kuwanwisiwma asked how anyone can articulate the importance of an area when it is destroyed.

"I've been at the confluence many times looking out over the Canyon and it is an inspiration to be there but it is also a recognition that that is our final resting place," Kuwanwisiwma said. "How can you even dare to suggest that, through some kind of public venue, you're going to try and educate the public about the importance of [this area] when you destroy it? That kind of suggestion is an affront to the Hopi people."


Comments are not posted immediately. Submissions must adhere to our Use of Service Terms of Use agreement. Rambling or nonsensical comments may not be posted. Comment submissions may not exceed a 200 word limit, and in order for us to reasonably manage this feature we may limit excessive comment entries.

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.