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GCPBA RiverNews 1/20/2013 - Navajo Opposition to the Escalade Escalates

As reported in the last issue of BQR (Boatman's Quarterly Review), a Scottsdale developer wants to build an aerial tramway into the Grand Canyon. It would begin on the rim at a high-end resort located on Navajo land and transport tourists down to the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers.

To pitch his plan, the developer enlisted a former Navajo Nation president, who left office in disgrace but who was able to translate promises of prosperity to local residents in their native language. They claimed that the "Grand Canyon Escalade" project would create 2,000 jobs, bring in billions of dollars to the Navajo Nation, and pave roads and provide running water, electricity, and other services to the region.

However, the decision on whether to approve the proposal is being bitterly contested within the Navajo Nation. Following two votes against the development by the Bodaway/Gap Chapter, project proponents prevailed in early October to gain approval by a seven-vote margin. During the heated town-hall style meeting, opponents claimed that police were used to quell debate and exclude participation by community members whose home site leases and grazing rights would be displaced by the development. They have filed charges with Navajo election authorities to challenge the vote and against chapter officials who they say predetermined its outcome.

The well-financed development partners signed an agreement last February with Navajo President Ben Shelly to work together toward planning and swiftly approving the Escalade proposal. Their plan was to secure strong approval by the Navajo Nation that they knew would be needed to overcome subsequent public opposition and legal challenges. They hired Navajo consultants to promote the Escalade's economic development opportunities, to persuade elected officials, and to unite popular support through "educational" meetings at Chapter houses.

They also launched a negative publicity campaign to criticize the National Park Service, river runners, and other groups for profiting from Grand Canyon tourism without benefitting Navajo people or protecting their sacred places.

But the promoters' plans have not quite panned out as intended. Tactics used to strong-arm the divisive Chapter vote have ignited widespread opposition against the developers, even among those who avidly support economic development in the region. The small band of family members that comprised the original Save the Confluence opposition group has added many new allies in forming the Protect the Confluence Coalition. Milton Bluehouse, a highly respected former president of the Navajo Nation, joined coalition members on their float during the parade for the annual Western Navajo Fair in Tuba City. Thousands cheered as the float passed, making it clear that opposition to Escalade is increasing.

President Shelly has stated publicly that he will cancel the February agreement by the end of the year if (ed. 2012 - current status unknown) Escalade developers fail to demonstrate a solid consensus among Navajo community members. Protect the Confluence advocates have enlisted attorneys, consultants, and traditional leaders in launching their own campaign to ensure that the Navajo Nation Council is firmly opposed to the project. Stay tuned to the latest information by visiting Save the Confluence | Preserving the East Rim of the Grand Canyon. <Save the Confluence | Preserving the East Rim of the Grand Canyon>

-Roger Clark

From the forthcoming issue of the Boatman's Quarterly Review. Thanks to the Grand Canyon River Guides.

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