TUSAYAN, AZ — Proposals to develop near national parks and monuments are always met with firm resistance from local governments and residence. Naturally, such proposals near one of the dubbed ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ would likely be met with even stronger resistance. Recently however, there appears to be some breakage in that resistance. Last month, the town of Tusayan, located just 6 miles north of the Grand Canyon, voted unanimously to approve a new version of a development proposal to “make improvements to segments of existing roads” that access the parcels of land surrounding the Kaibab National Forest. The end result of the project would be new shopping and malls being erected near the Canyon National Park.
Ongoing talks of development
This vote comes as both the town and an Italian development company attempt to obtain a permit from the US Forest Service that will bring them closer to being able to develop near the Grand Canyon. Both parties ultimately are seeking to be able to build hotels, shopping malls, and build housing developments as well. The development company joining the Tusayan town council in this effort is Stilo Development Group. Back in 2015, Common Dreams reported that the Italy based developer sought to obtain a permit to build a road running through the Kaibab National Forest, which would have been the first step in their development plans. In the 1990, Stilo purchased land near the south rim of the Canyon and has longed to develop on the land ever since.
In 2015, Common Dreams reported that the proposed developments would include, “2,100 housing units and 3 million square feet of retail space along with hotels, a spa, and conference center.”
Previous setback to attempts at development
While Stilo purchased hundreds of acres of land in Coconino County, moving forward with their plans to develop has been a slow process that has frequently run into setbacks. In 2000, Coconino County voted 2-1 against major developments near the Grand Canyon. Then in 2003, the Arizona State Legislature voted to allow towns within 10 miles of National Parks with residence of 500 to incorporate. In 2010, the town Tusayan voted not only to incorporate but also to increase the residence number by 43%.
However, Stilo’s project was given a huge setback in 2016 when, to the delight of conservation groups, environmentalists, and Native tribes, the Forest Service rejected Tusayan’s application to expand access to the parcels of land it planned to develop on.
Implications of the vote
This plan for development comes after Stilo Group has spent decades trying to get their proposal approved. Though it has been met with backlash from environmental groups, this recent vote has brought the project as close as it’s ever been to being approved. If the agency accepts this application, the plan will undergo a length environmental review process per the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
This past fall, the Grand Canyon Trust released a statement urging the Forest Service to reject the proposed plan. “The Trust urges the U.S. Forest Service to deny the application for road and utility easements for the project because they would pave the way for thousands of new hotel rooms, a RV park, a conference center, and a resort. This development would significantly increase the pumping of groundwater from deep wells and further threaten the sole source of the Havasupai Tribe’s drinking water. And it could cut the flow of hundreds of the Grand Canyon’s life-giving seeps and springs below the south rim,” the statement reads.
Objections from environmental groups
Speaking on the proposal, Alicyn Gitlin who runs and oversees the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter told the Phoenix New Times that she had traveled along the roads and trails in the proposed development plan and noted that many of them were barely passable. “they’re going to have to do some blasting, at least in one spot,” she told The New Times.
Among her list of concerns, Gitlin noted the displacement of campers and the inadequate protection for the area’s groundwater. In the proposal, Stilo agreed to a ban on commercial groundwater use, with the one exception of groundbreaking technology emerging that would allow the practice with no negative impact on groundwater resources. However, when it came to managing who would be responsible for enforcing that rule, Tusayan’s vice-mayor Brady Harris said it would ultimately fall to either the town or the Forest Service, not Stilo.
Just prior to the vote, Gitlin told the town council that the proposal from Stilo, “is a death sentence for the springs in the Grand Canyon.” Despite the concerns from groups like Sierra Club, Harris assures the public that the plan will be good for the area and insists that locals are in support of the plan. When asked how residence felt about the hotels, Harris said, “people are very supportive of the housing.”
At the end of last month, the Center for Biological Diversity released a statement on the plan, condemning it, asserting that it would, “be just as dangerous to water resources, wildlife and visitors. It would also flood the night skies of one of the nation’s most iconic national parks.”
Potential future roadblocks for Tusayan and Stilo
Moving forward it is unclear what the fate of this proposal will be. Protection of public lands has been raised by several of the Democratic candidates currently running for the party’s presidential nomination this year. Notably, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has put forward an outline of a plan aimed at protecting public lands from exactly this kind of privatization and development. In her lengthy Medium post, the senator writes, “I’m strongly opposed to the sale or transfer of our national forests, wildlife refuges, and other national public lands. Our public lands should stay public, so that they can be enjoyed by all of us.” Her post comes in response to the Trump administration’s selling roughly 3.3 million acres of public land.