Where Grand Canyon rivers converge, economic and preservation needs collide

Millions come to the Grand Canyon every year to marvel at its natural beauty, but in a remote corner of the Navajo Nation, there's a part of the canyon that few tourists see. A group of developers hopes to change that by building hotels, restaurants and an aerial tram. Ryan Hill, a student reporter from Arizona State University, looks at what that could mean for the Navajo community.

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    Finally tonight: a sacred spot in one of America's most breathtaking landmarks. History, environment and economics all collide, as a divided Navajo community grapple with a billion-dollar plan to develop a pristine spot where two rivers meet.

    Ryan Hill, a reporter at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, takes an in-depth look at the controversy.


    The Grand Canyon is one of the world's most protected places, for a reason.

  • WOMAN:

    It's my time with God. As you're heading down and the sun is just starting to peak out and the shadows are across these beautiful creations, it is — it's magnificent.


    Millions come every year to marvel at one of the seven Natural Wonders of the World, which remains unchanged since the late 1800s, when it first came under federal protection.


    This is a pristine — still, after all these years, a pristine outdoors, backcountry experience. National parks really were America's best idea, and this is a fine example of that.


    But deep in a remote corner of the Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona, there is a part of the canyon that few people ever see, the Confluence, where the Colorado and the Little Colorado Rivers meet, a place considered sacred by the Navajos, who have deep ties to the land.

    DELORES WILSON-AGUIRRE, Save the Confluence: Two rivers, they come together. They make life. That's where life originated. The emergence, that's where I people came from.


    The Confluence Partners, a group of Arizona based developers, see something else: a chance to build, make money and bring tourists to this secluded spot. This is an artist's rendering of the proposed Escalade, a project that would include hotels, restaurants and an aerial tram that would take tourists down the canyon to the Confluence.

    The project would be constructed here on hundreds of acres of Navajo land on the canyon's eastern rim and, with it, a spectacular view. To Navajo shepherd Marie Peyketewa and many others, the project is nothing short of sacrilegious. She works the land that has been in her family for generations.


    Look at those walls. What's going to happen to the walls of the canyon? They're going to destroy it. My grandchildren's kids are not going to see this beautiful area.


    The development would consume more than land. It also would consume water, water that would need to be piped in for building, drinking and sanitation. Some fear that water would come from the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon National Park, among them, park superintendent David Uberuaga.

  • DAVID UBERUAGA, Superintendent, Grand Canyon National Park:

    Two hundred and seventy-seven miles of the Colorado River go through Grand Canyon National Park. It is the water source for over 30 million people. Anything that you take away from that, anything that detracts that, especially on a permanent basis, is a degradation that isn't what we can accept.


    Five million people visit the Grand Canyon National Park every year.

    One of them is Jill McCall, who has been hiking the Grand Canyon the Grand Canyon for 20 years.

  • JILL MCCALL, Hiker:

    To put a hotel and parking lots and a tram coming down, it's — it's an abomination.


    It's not only developers and tourists who disagree. So do those who live on tribal lands. But just miles from the Confluence on the weathered and impoverished Western fringes of the Navajo Nation, Larry Hanks lives without water, without electricity. He supports the project.

  • LARRY HANKS, Navajo Nation:

    We want a better tomorrow for our kids, because our kids' future is paramount to us.


    There are no grocery stores or parks. Tribal souvenir stands are as deserted as the land itself. But the road to the Escalade project would bring tourists right through this part of the Navajo Reservation.

    At this tribal land use meeting, talk of economic opportunity is constant. Brian Kensley sees a tourist influx as a pivotal moment for his people.

  • BRIAN KENSLEY, Navajo Tribal Member:

    This will give them another choice for these visitors coming worldwide or nationwide to come in and have a choice to say, OK, there's still a tribe that is living and existing. They are not extinct.


    The Grand Canyon National Park superintendent says he's opposed, even if it is built on tribal land.


    The way the tram landing is, as proposed, lands on park lands. So it's a trespassing into Grand Canyon National Park.


    And this land is valued by everyone, those who see it as a chance to thrive.


    We're trying to fight so we can have a little bit slighter, higher quality of the life. My dream for my daughter is, I want something for her around here, because this is home to her.


    And those wanting to protect it for future generations.


    When you have a tie to the land, especially here at our place of emergence, it's not worth giving it up for money.

  • MAN:

    My children and your children, they wouldn't see wilderness here in what is really one of the most spectacular places on earth.


    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Ryan Hill in Grand Canyon National Park.


    The recently inaugurated Navajo president, Russell Begaye, at first signed a deal supporting the project, but now he says he is opposed.

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