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National Parks Traveler, April 28, 2015

Forest Service Opens Scoping Period For Development On South Rim Of Grand Canyon
By Kurt Repanshek

A project that could see more than 2,000 housing units and several million square feet of commercial space reach to within a half-mile or so of Grand Canyon National Park could also impact groundwater flows that feed the canyon's springs and hanging gardens, according to conservation groups working to raise public opposition to the project.

“The Forest Service is putting Grand Canyon National Park in the crosshairs by considering Tusayan’s dangerous, damaging plan for a mega-resort,” said Kevin Dahl of the National Parks Conservation Association. “This proposal is not in the public interest and is one of the greatest threats Grand Canyon National Park has seen in its history. The Forest Service can and should have rejected it out of hand.”

At issue is a request to the U.S. Forest Service to allow the town of Tusayan to "make improvements to segments of existing forest roads and construct new segments to provide all-weather access and utility service to two inholding properties within the Kaibab National Forest that are located within the incorporated limits of the Town."

The Forest Service through late June is seeking public input into how the project might impact the surrounding area.

Grand Canyon officials have voiced their opposition to the project, with Superintendent Dave Uberuaga saying it, and a proposal known as "Escalade" that would involve a rim-to-river tram on Navajo land just east of the park, pose the "greatest threat" to the park in its history.

The Tusayan project has been roughly two decades in the making. Once called the "Canyon Forest Development," today it is being pushed by the Stilo Development Group, a groupwith Italian roots.

Opponents say the project would transform the 580-resident community of Tusayan "from a small, quiet tourist town into a sprawling complex of high-end homes, strip malls, and resorts only a mile from the Grand Canyon National Park boundary."

Stilo, which "hopes to bring large-scale tourist-driven commercial development and much needed residential housing to the town," has partnered with town officials to obtain the federal permit needed to expand road and utility access through public lands within the Kaibab National Forest. Company officials have said the project they envision is necessary to give Grand Canyon visitors something else to do after they tour the South Rim.

"The average tourist has his Kodak moment at the Rim, buys a plastic tomahawk made in China, and then leaves," Stilo spokesperson Tom DePaolo told Esquire magazine for a 2013 piece on the project.

"The National Park Service considers the mega-development a significant threat to Grand Canyon because it will require vast quantities of water and could lower the aquifer that feeds seeps, springs, and streams that support wildlife and recreation on the park’s South Rim," said a press release sent out Monday by a coalition of groups including NPCA, Earthjustice, the Grand Canyon Trust, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club. "Groundwater pumping accompanying the development could also lower the aquifer that is the exclusive source of all water for Havasu Falls, the cultural foundation of the Havasupai tribe."

At Earthjustice, Ted Zukoski said, “The Forest Service is paving the way for foreign investors to exploit America’s most treasured natural landmark all to turn a profit. The Forest Service is throwing out its responsibility to serve the public interest by endangering the water, wildlife, and wilderness that make the Grand Canyon so special.”

Earthjustice, on behalf of the conservation groups, has submitted a letter protesting the Forest Service’s consideration of the rights-of-way permit. The city of Flagstaff and regional businesses have already passed resolutions opposing this development, saying that it would negatively impact surrounding communities and Grand Canyon National Park, the groups said.

While the physical development in its own right is of major concern to opponents, where the developers will get water for it is of greater concern.

“That’s the fundamental question that has us most concerned," Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust said Monday. "We already know that the springs on the South Rim are directly connected to the existing wells in Tusayan and some of the wells are showing signs of drying up."

At NPCA, Mr. Dahl echoed that sentiment during a conversation Monday.

“The developer says they have the right to drill wells. There is a complicated aquifer there," he said. "We don’t know a whole lot about, but it goes down to the Redwall (limestone formation), and a lot of the springs come out of the Redwall. But they have also talked about trucking in water, using a railroad line to bring in water.”

The Tusayan and Escalade projects are just two recent threats to the national park and the canyon it protects. There also have been concerns about the restarting of a nearby uranium mine.

“Whether it’s uranium-mining companies or greedy developers some will always see the Grand Canyon as a cash register, not one of Earth’s most awe-inspiring and precious places,” said Robin Silver, a founder of the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is a place worth fighting for. We plan to fight shoulder to shoulder with millions of other Americans to defeat this latest scheme to commercialize the Grand Canyon. Shopping malls don’t belong here.”

The Forest Service is take public comment on the proposal through June 3. It also has scheduled informational meetings on the proposal in Tusayan (May 19), Williams (May 18), and Flagstaff, Ariz. (May 20).


© Copyright 2005-2014 National Park Advocates, LLC.

This article originally appeared here.

Jeffrey pine photo by John Villinski.