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How a plan for the ultimate tourist experience could threaten the Grand Canyon

April 7, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
The Grand Canyon, known as one of the world’s natural wonders, may be threatened by commercial development and mining, according to a new report. Jeffrey Brown talks to Robert Irvin of American Rivers about the most endangered rivers of 2015 and what put the Colorado River on the top of the list.
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GWEN IFILL: The Grand Canyon has long been recognized as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. But, increasingly, there are fights over what kind of development should be allowed near it, and even within it, to allow visitors to see more.

The latest battle is over the Colorado River that runs through it.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Much of the fight revolves around what could happen to the 277-mile stretch of the Lower Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon, a crucial part of the ecosystem, and the majestic vistas five million people come to see each year.

One issue: A developer wants to create a tramway to bring as many as 10,000 tourists a day to the bottom. It would be on Navajo land, and the company has been working with some tribal leaders to create a hotel near the plateau and a restaurant at the bottom.

Separately, a mining company hopes to reopen a uranium mine near the canyon’s rim. And a nearby town wants to create 2,000 more homes near the park’s South Rim entrance. All of this led the environmental advocacy group American Rivers, to put the Colorado at the top of its new 10 most endangered rivers list.

Its president, Robert Irvin, joins me now.

And welcome to you.

ROBERT IRVIN, American Rivers: Thank you for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And to be clear, this is not a list of the most polluted or damaged rivers. This is what might happen.

ROBERT IRVIN: That’s right.

This is the 10 most endangered rivers. And we have three criteria. The rivers have to be of national or regional importance. There has to be an imminent threat to them, and most importantly there has to be something that’s going to happen this year, some decision that’s going to be made that concerned citizens can influence.

JEFFREY BROWN: So in the case of the Colorado River at the Grand Canyon, I just listed some of your concern, but fill that in a little bit.

ROBERT IRVIN: Well, everyone knows about the Grand Canyon.

And the Colorado River is the lifeblood of the Grand Canyon. This is an amazing national and indeed international resource, and there are significant threats to it. We all think of it as being protected as a national park. But the reality is that there is a huge construction project proposed right in the heart of the canyon.

There’s the threat of expanded and new uranium mining around the canyon. And there are proposals to add 2,000 homes to an existing town just outside of the south entrance of the park, which will be terribly damaging to the water supply in that region.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we reached out to a developer and others and they were unable to join us tonight, but we found on the Web site of the developer — as we said, they have been working with some Navajo tribespeople.

And we found this audio clip from that site. Let’s listen to that.

ADVOCATE FOR PROJECT: It would be nice to have a job for my mom and I that’s closer to home. I would have more time with my mother and not have to worry about her driving morning and night to work. This Escalade project will benefit many people of my generation. It’s our jobs, our community, our state, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so more jobs, that’s one of the arguments. Better access for more people to see the canyon.

Do you deny that, or do you just think that the costs outweigh any such benefits?

ROBERT IRVIN: Well, no one can deny that the Navajo people need greater economic development. The question is: What type of economic development?

Is it the best thing to do to sacrifice this nationally important, internationally important resource, the Grand Canyon, and the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers in the name of economic development? The confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado River is a sacred place to many Navajo, to the Hopi, to the Zuni and to other tribes, and it’s an internationally important place as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are — you have got nine other lists — nine other rivers on this list. Can’t go through them all. But can you give us a sense of the kinds of threats that you see maybe with a couple other examples?

ROBERT IRVIN: Sure. Sure.

One of the common themes in this year’s list is the threat to clean drinking water, be it from mining operations or from inadequate sewage treatment around the country. And so we have a couple rivers in Tennessee, the Harpeth River and the Holston River, and in Montana the Smith River, which is threatened by a massive copper mine.

And even in Alaska, the Chuitna River is being threatened by one of the world’s largest strip mines for coal.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the purpose of the list then is public awareness? What do you want to happen next?

ROBERT IRVIN: Well, mostly, we want Americans to stand up for their rivers and say, we care about our rivers. They’re important to us for drinking water, they’re important to us as places to fish and to paddle, and they’re important to our children and our grandchildren.

And so this list alerts people to the threats to their rivers and gives them the tools they need to stand up to protect them.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Robert Irvin of the American Rivers, thanks so much.

ROBERT IRVIN: Thank you.

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