Resource and Development Committee tables Escalade project
Committee tables legislation citing community input and public safety concerns, legislation moves to Budget and Finance Committee next
BODAWAY/GAP, Ariz. — A full house at the Bodaway/Gap Chapter waited five hours Jan. 11 for the Resource and Development Committee (RDC) to sort through other matters before tabling legislation that sought to approve the master agreement for the Grand Canyon Escalade project.
The master agreement includes the approval of $65 million to develop offsite infrastructure for the project and would also authorize the Navajo Nation Hospitality Enterprise to enter into a development and operating agreement, approve a non-compete agreement, waive certain provisions of the Navajo Nation Code and accept the approval of a land withdrawal in the Bodaway/Gap Chapter.
Confluence Partners, LLC, from Scottsdale, Arizona, hopes to build a gondola tramway delivering visitors to the canyon floor in about 10 minutes. The project would include a river walk in the canyon with an elevated walkway and a food pavilion. The area is located on the western edge of the Navajo Nation at the confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River about 100 miles by road from I-40 and Flagstaff, Arizona.
The 47,000 square feet of retail and restaurants on the rim will also include a Navajoland Discovery Center, specialty retail stores, restaurants, artist in residence studios, vendor markets, tourism information center, rim trails, entertainment lawn, public safety office, hotels, gas station, RV park and provide water lines, roads, electric services, sewer treatment plant and communications for the area, according to former Rep. Albert Hale, Confluence Partners agent.
The proposed legislation was unanimously opposed by the Law and Order Committee Oct. 10, 2016. The Resource and Development Committee said the legislation was lacking in some detail, which R. Lamar Whitmer, of Confluence Partners, said he is addressing.
Whitmer was on hand for the meeting at The Gap, where about 100 community members attended the meeting. He said in an email after the meeting that the committee tabling the legislation tells him that several members of the committee want to have a serious and thorough consideration of Escalade together with their colleagues when the entire council votes on the project.
“It was very positive (tabling the legislation) in that this was the first time any of the council delegates were able to see that there is substantial community support,” Whitmer said. “At the meeting, our chapter supporters outnumbered Grand Canyon Trust’s paid protestors two to one, contrary to what Grand Canyon Trust’s paid protestors have been telling that Escalade lacks local support.”
Don Yellowman, president of the Bodaway/Gap Chapter, said he believes Whitmer wants to give a false impression that Confluence Partners has the support of Bodaway/Gap community members.
“In fact, your readers should know that the Resource and Development meeting was rescheduled several times,” Yellowman said. “And, in the end, the community members were not informed of the meeting in a timely manner, resulting in the audience being primarily made up of Confluence Partners typical follower/supporters.”
Save the Confluence, an organization made up of some families in the area, said the committee got to see the list and names of around 35 grazing permit holders who are opposed to the project. They said a large portion of the attendees at the meeting were the land users and permittees, who are from the canyon/confluence area, and who oppose the project.
“We believe the committee has been told by developers that the entire community supported the Escalade bill, but the committee witnessed a deep division,” the group said. “The Confluence Partners have constantly provoked animosity by spreading rumors that the area is not sacred. They disregarded the statements by the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department. They disregarded our neighbors, the Hopis. They tell others that the families don’t live there and they are all paid activists.”
A representative from the Hopi Tribe, representing Hopi Tribal Chairman Herman Honanie, handed out a flyer before the meeting reiterating the Hopi regard the confluence with the utmost respect and reverence for its central role within Hopi history and culture.
“More importantly, it would be well for the Navajo Nation Council to recall there is a formal legal precedence that will be violated with the Escalade project,” the flyer from the tribe said.
The tribe said the 2006 intergovernmental agreement committed each tribe to protecting and ensuring complete and unfettered access to religious sites and the landscapes that are located therein. According the compact, the Hopi consider the confluence one of those areas.
“It is the Hopi Tribe’s stance that the Escalade project is a complete disrespect of Hopi cultural traditions and beliefs concerning the confluence area,” the flyer said. “It is complete disregard toward the years of good-faith negotiations involved with the Compact, essentially negating it. As a result, the Hopi Tribe is prepared to pursue any necessary litigation against the Navajo Nation to uphold the stipulations of the Compact.”
While neither supporters nor opponents from the crowd were allowed to speak, RDC member Council Delegate Jonathan Perry (Becenti, Crownpoint, Huerfano, Lake Valley, Nageezi, Nahodishgish, Tse’ii’ahi, Whiterock) allowed Yellowman to address the crowd. Yellowman said that his words were directed to the committee members and Confluence Partner supporters.
“[I was] hoping to impart logic and reason that would resonate in their hearts and minds,” Yellowman said. “Obviously, my oppositional points were based in fact, intended to sway the RDC members to vote against the legislation. I was not trying to gauge or seek approval from the so called crowd.”
For its part, Save the Confluence said they believe the community should come together to figure out what type of plan they want on their land for the future, instead of outside developers, such as Confluence Partners, telling them what is best for them.
A thought echoed by Perry, who questioned chapter support for the plan and public safety concerns.
“I don’t see the chapter’s community land use plan in the legislation. Is the Escalade project included in the plans of the community?” Perry asked.
He added that he did not see any plans to address public safety and emergency management, citing concern that the Nation is short staffed for law enforcement and local communities are not equipped to handle large development projects like Escalade.
“If an emergency occurs near the project, who will respond to the emergency?” Perry asked. “Addressing safety should always be a priority.”
According to the Grand Canyon Escalade briefing book, prepared by the Confluence Partners, phase one of development includes the construction of a public safety facility that would consist of a security center, medial response center and adjacent helipad.
Council Delegate Benjamin Bennett (Crystal, Fort Defiance, Red Lake, Sawmill), sponsor of the legislation making its way through various committees and who introduced the current proposal Aug. 29, 2016, said that he knows a lot of the Navajo Nation leaders do not want to deal with it, but the legislation plans for the Navajo people’s future.
“[The] Nation faces shrinking revenues from nonrenewable coal, oil and gas and federal funding. The Escalade project can recover those dollars lost,” he said.
RDC member Council Delegate Walter Phelps (Cameron, Coalmine Canyon, Leupp, Tolani Lake, Tsidi To ii) said the project may provide an economic opportunity for the Nation, but said it requires more input from community members and more careful planning without debates and disagreements.
“I think this opportunity will be in the near future, not today, but in the future,” Phelps said. “The right thing to do is do a community referendum. We need to see what the community members think about this.”
RDC chair Council Delegate Alton Joe Shepherd (Jeddito, Cornfields, Ganado, Kin Dah Lichíí, Steamboat) also agreed the decision regarding the project should come from the local community.
“I believe that it is the people’s choice,” Shepherd said. “The $65 million request for the project is the people’s money. We need to conduct public hearings before a decision is made. The chapter’s community land use plan also needs to be recertified before a major decision.”
According to former Rep. Hale, Confluence Partners will contribute $162 million to develop and construct the phase one improvements and the Nation could contribute up to $63 million to develop and construct all roads and utilities for the proposed site.
Yellowman said the community should be highly involved and educated on the proposed project saying there had been no public education about the project.
“Community members need to know the concept of ecotourism and industrial tourism before the project is approved,” he said. “There was no open discussion at the chapter about the project and we feel excluded.”
Despite Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye stating in the past that he is opposed to the project, Whitmer sees hope for Escalade.
“My partners and I have great faith in President Begaye that after the Council passes Escalade, the president will approve the project based on the fact that Escalade actually respects and honors the sacredness of the confluence, and building Escalade will provide the means for Navajos to be blessed and prosper by becoming the high-end dominate player in Grand Canyon tourism,” Whitmer said.
Yellowman cautioned that forethought and knowledge are critical attributes for the Nation’s leaders to possess when making legislation that will change the Diné way of life and their pristine motherlands forever. He said community members’ human, societal and legal rights are being violated by certain legislators and promoters.
“This will ultimately be worse than the Bennett Freeze Act, if approved,” Yellowman said. “As I’ve said before, if our legislators approve this project, they will be approving a lifetime of injustices to future generations by allowing the continued exploitation of our people and our natural resources in return for miniscule revenues for the Navajo Nation and exposing us all to enormous risks.”
As the host chapter, Yellowman said Bodaway/Gap chapter members will face the issues the project would bring.
“We would be left with nothing but problems faced by our community members and great sadness that our Nation’s leaders turned against us for money, choosing profits over their own people.”
The RDC tabled the legislation with a 3-2 vote. The bill moves forward to the Budget and Finance Committee next.