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Navajos consider plan to develop Grand Canyon’s East Rim

This artist rendering provided by Confluence Partners, LLC, depicts a proposed aerial tramway, at right, that would ferry tourists from the cliff tops of the east rim of the Grand Canyon to the water's edge of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers below. Navajo Nation lawmakers will consider a plan Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017, to build an aerial tram to carry visitors to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The special session in Window Rock, Arizona, will be the first time the full Tribal Council takes up the bill. (Confluence Partners, LLC via AP)

Navajo Nation lawmakers will consider a plan Tuesday to develop the East Rim of the Grand Canyon, with an aerial tram that would take visitors 3,200 feet down to a riverside boardwalk.

The special session in Window Rock, Arizona, will be the first time the full Tribal Council takes up the Grand Canyon Escalade bill that was introduced last year. It needs 16 votes to pass, and has so far gotten a cold reception from lawmakers.

The development on 420 acres on the reservation that borders Grand Canyon National Park within the gorge requires a $65 million investment from the tribe for roads, water and power lines, and communications. A non-compete clause in the legislation prevents other development within a 15-mile radius and along access roads.

Developers say the tram, along with retail shops, hotels, restaurants and vendor sites could be running in May 2021 if everything goes as planned.

Families who hold grazing permits and home site leases in the area say they’ll be at the council meeting urging delegates to vote against the project and vow to continue fighting it if approved. They’ve said the area is sacred and the proposed development would mar the landscape where the Colorado River meets the blue-green waters of the Little Colorado River.

“Once it gets to a vote, that’s the only thing council delegates are ready to (do), vote it down,” said Renae Yellowhorse, who opposes the project. “We’re a force.”

The vote comes ahead of a tribal election year and at a time the tribe is preparing for the loss of hundreds of jobs with the expected shutdown of the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station near Page and its supply mine in 2019.

Lamar Whitmer, part of the Scottsdale-based Confluence Partners development group, said the East Rim project could employ up to 3,500 people on a reservation where half the workforce is unemployed. The management team also includes former Navajo President Albert Hale and others who have helped develop resorts and theme parks.

The Navajo Nation’s share of revenues would depend on the number of visitors, but the tribe is guaranteed a minimum 8 percent of gross revenue, developers say.

“They want jobs,” Whitmer said. “The one thing that’s crystal clear to me, with NGS shutting down because it can’t be competitive, they’re going to have to start expanding and diversifying their economy.”

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