Grand Canyon Rhapsody/Grand Canyon Requiem
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
“Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the unlovely human mind.”
President Theodore Roosevelt said of Grand Canyon, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and men can only mar it.” Sadly, man’s attempts to mar this natural marvel have never ceased. In the 1960’s, a group of congressmen proposed construction of two huge hydroelectric dams in the canyon, creating a vast lake. It was argued that the canyon would become more accessible to visitors by means of watercraft. Beginning in 1963, the Sierra Club ran a series of nationwide newspaper and magazine ads asking, “Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?”
The public outcry caused the project to be scrapped in 1968. The IRS responded by ending the Sierra Club’s tax exempt status, causing recalcitrant members to actually increase their contributions. At the time there was a huge collective sigh of relief that the canyon had been saved from defilement, but today new threats have appeared. While Grand Canyon National Park itself is protected, the lands of the adjacent watershed, including the Kaibab Plateau with its 1737 plant species and unique wildlife habitat, are not.
Grand Canyon stretches for 227 miles along the twists and turns of the Colorado River. It is 18 miles wide at its widest and descends to a depth of one mile. It is one of the world’s most magnificent and most recognizable natural wonders. While it took 80 million years for the river to carve it out, its sanctity can be ruined in nanoseconds by human misbehavior.
Now, the Grand Canyon Escalade, a 1.4 mile tramway that would carry as many as 10,000 people a day 3200 feet to the canyon floor is proposed on nearby lands owned by the Navaho Nation and outside park boundaries. Such an intrusion, with accompanying noise and pollution, would defile the natural environment, already violated by the Hualpi Skywalk with its helicopter service to the bottom of the gorge. The argument that such a development would provide employment for young Navaho, keeping them home on the reservation, is insubstantial when compared to the havoc such a project would cause.
Near by, The Italian based development company Stilo Group plans to construct 2000 homes on inholdings, private lands predating the designation of parks and forests, within the Kaibab National Forest. This project, larger than the Mall of America, would include three million feet of commercial space consisting of shops, hotels, boutiques, a spa, a trailer park and a dude ranch.
The same stale arguments offered by proponents of the dams in the sixties have been dusted off and reintroduced, that presently only a few can enjoy the canyon but that the development would cause greater visitation and enjoyment than the National Park Service now provides. In reality, the National Park Service provides multiple opportunities for visitors to experience the canyon. That large parts of the canyon would be desecrated matters not the least in the eyes of the greedy destroyers.
Demands for new wells to provide water for such a development would threaten the already overtaxed aquifer in an arid region where water is never to be taken for granted. As it is, the waters of Kanab Creek which should feed directly into the Colorado River almost never make it there because they are sucked dry by local communities. Other tributaries, such as Horn Creek and Salt Creek, have been rendered radioactive and unfit for consumption by Uranium mining.
The Grand Canyon Watershed Coalition, consisting of numerous local and national organizations is working tirelessly to persuade President Obama to declare the entire 1.7 million acres of the region the Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument. Past attempts to save Kaibab Plateau and Kanab Creek by expanding park boundaries or by declaring them national monuments have been thwarted by roadblocks created by special interests.
The new monument would facilitate the ultimate goal of a wildlife corridor leading from Yellowstone National Park to Grand Canyon. Hopefully, it would eventually connect with the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative’s series of wild lands now being extended across the US/Canadian border.
Kaibab Plateau is an ecologically rich “sky island” that sustains a population of mule deer as well as the rare Kaibab squirrel. Mountain lions and the endangered California condor sometimes appear in the region. Briefly, it was also the home of Echo the gray wolf, who wandered all the way from Yellowstone, only to be shot by a hunter.
There is a groundswell of support in Arizona and across the nation for such a national monument. If the President is persuaded to sign on the dotted line, we can anticipate a shrill chorus of caterwauling and lamentations from logging, grazing and mining interests, as there was in the aftermath of his designation of New Mexico’s Organ Mountains as a national monument last year.
Thomas Jefferson observed that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Such vigilance is also the price of any good thing, including the preservation of the health and integrity of one of our most beloved national treasures.