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Navajo president takes firm stance against Grand Canyon tram

This undated image provided by Confluence Partners LLC., shows a proposed aerial tram and boardwalk at the east rim of the Grand Canyon on the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation's newly inaugurated president surprised many when he signed an agreement that included plans to build a tram that takes visitors to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. (Confluence Partners LLC. via AP)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Newly inaugurated Navajo President Russell Begaye stood before hundreds of people at his inauguration ceremony and signed a document stating he would pursue development of an aerial tram at the Grand Canyon.

A day later, on Wednesday, Begaye issued a statement saying he’s opposed to the project and always has been. His spokesman Eric Descheenie said Begaye was blindsided by the agreement and didn’t actually read what he signed.

Begaye’s predecessor, Ben Shelly, presented the agreement to Begaye on stage and said the signatures by the two leaders would showcase a continuity of leadership and commitment to the prosperity of the Navajo people.

Here’s a look at questions surrounding the project and the political landscape.

WHAT IS THE GRAND CANYON ESCALADE?

The Grand Canyon Escalade is a proposed aerial tram at the east rim of the canyon outside the boundaries of the national park. Tourists would be shuttled from the cliff tops of the Navajo Nation to the edge of the Colorado River below before it meets the Little Colorado River.

The area known as the confluence is roughly a 100-mile drive from Flagstaff and has no paved roads, running water or electricity. Plans call for infrastructure development, a riverside boardwalk, hotels, cultural center and places for Navajo artisans to sell their goods.

HOW DO VISITORS CURRENTLY REACH THE BOTTOM OF THE CANYON?

Visitors to Grand Canyon National Park can hike or ride a mule to the bottom, and rafters can reach it by way of the Colorado River. Tourists can pay for helicopter rides into the canyon on the Hualapai and Havasupai reservations. A road that leads to the Colorado River on the Hualapai reservation also offers rafters a chance to get on or off the river for a fee.

WHAT’S IN IT FOR THE NAVAJO NATION?

That is up for debate. Some Navajos say the development would mar the landscape of sagebrush, rolling hills, arroyos and canyons that tribal members consider sacred ground. Shelly and the developers say it would bring much-needed revenue and employment to the reservation where half the workforce is jobless. Proposals call for the tribe to put up an initial $65 million investment for infrastructure, with developers chipping in $165 million to start off. Full build-out would approach $1 billion. Estimates from developers have put visitation at 2.5 million people per year, with annual revenue ranging from $20 million to $65 million a year depending on actual visitation.

WHAT IS THE NEXT STEP?

The Navajo Nation Council, the tribe’s legislative body, would have to approve the project. Legislation has not been introduced in the council, said spokesman Jared Touchin. Environmentalists, the National Park Service and the Hopi Tribe have opposed the project. Hopis consider the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers among the birthplaces of their ancestors, whose spirits dwell in the area. The project also could raise a jurisdictional challenge from the Park Service depending on how close it gets to the Colorado River.

WHAT OTHER GRAND CANYON DEVELOPMENTS EXIST?

The Hualapai Tribe operates the Grand Canyon Skywalk west of Grand Canyon National Park. Visitors can step out onto a horseshoe-shaped glass bridge 4,000 feet above the Colorado River and look into the depths of the canyon. An Italian real-estate group is planning a massive development just outside the Grand Canyon’s South Rim entrance in the town of Tusayan. No water source has been identified for the proposed dude ranch, high-end boutiques, five-star hotels, hundreds of homes and high-density shopping area.

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