Environmental victories can be few and far between in Arizona, which is why a decision by the U.S. Forest Service to reject a proposal to widen roads and build infrastructure on a parcel of USFS land near the Grand Canyon has conservation groups, Native American tribes, and environmentalists across the country celebrating.
The town of Tusayan applied for the road and utility easement in 2014 to make it possible for Stilo Development USA to build 2,100 houses, hotels, restaurants, a spa, and “an entertainment pavilion based on Native American themes” in an undeveloped part of town.
It’s been a contentious project for years. Advocates say the development would be great for the local economy, while opponents say it could wreak havoc on the local ecosystem, water resources, and important tribal lands.
Now, after two years of deliberation about the easement, the USFS finally has come down on the side of the opponents.
In a letter addressed to the mayor of Tusayan, Kaibab Forest Supervisor Heather Provencio writes that the USFS is rejecting the easement proposal because not only would it “stress local and park infrastructure and have untold impacts to the surrounding Tribal and National Park lands, [but it’s] deeply controversial [and] is opposed by local and national communities.
“There is significant evidence the proposal is not in the public interest,” she concludes.
According to USFS documents, during a public scoping period about the proposal last year, “the Forest Service received 2,447 unique comment letters, 85,693 form letters, two petitions with 105,698 signatures, and 86 other comments. After the close of the initial formal scoping period, the Forest Service received over 35,000 additional comment letters. The vast majority of commenters opposed the Forest Service authorizing the proposed roads and infrastructure.”
The Tusayan proposal is one of two highly controversial development projects in the Grand Canyon. The other is the Escalade, a gondola tramway that would take riders from the rim of the canyon to the bottom. Last year, Dave Uberuaga, superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, told Smithsonian Magazine: “These two projects constitute the greatest threat to the Grand Canyon in the 96-year history of the park.”
Kevin Dahl, Arizona program manager of National Parks Conservation Association, agrees and calls this recent decision “a huge win for the park and all those who love it … Expanding Tusayan was an ill-conceived idea and would have been a massive threat to one of our country’s crown jewels.”
And it’s not just environmentalists who think the easement was a bad idea. Many local tribes, as well as the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, also have voiced concern about the development draining local aquifers, affecting wildlife, creating air pollution, and threatening lands considered sacred by the many local tribes.
According to the USFS, the agency met multiple times with representatives of the Havasupai, Hopi, Hualapai, and Yavapai-Prescott Indian tribes, as well as the Navajo and Yavapai Apache nations and the Pueblo of Zuni — all of whom “stated they have an interest in the project due to its proximity to the Grand Canyon and … have submitted concerns related to potential impacts to natural and cultural resources associated with future development.”
Not everyone in the area is pleased: Local officials in Tusayan say they’re “shocked” by the decision, and in a statement, a Stilo representative said: “We are surprised and disappointed … and will make a decision on our next steps when appropriate.”
But as far as Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust is concerned, this is a major victory:
“The USFS decision raises the bar in finding that the project ‘could substantially and adversely affect Tribal lands and the Grand Canyon National Park’ [and] I don't recall ever seeing a more compelling agency decision in the right direction,” he writes to New Times in an email.
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“In essence, this is … a unilateral decision by the agency to protect the public interest [and Supervisor Provencio] deserves high praise for her decision.”
Read Provencio's letter: