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Tribe's canyon Skywalk opens one deep divide

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-skywalk11feb11,0,68022 48.story?coll=la-home-center Tribe s canyon Skywalk opens one deep divide By Julie
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 26, 2007

      Tribe's canyon Skywalk opens one deep divide

      By Julie Cart
      Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

      February 11, 2007

      GRAND CANYON WEST, ARIZ. — Perched over the Grand Canyon close to a mile
      above the Colorado River, a massive, multimillion-dollar glass walkway will
      soon open for business as the centerpiece of a struggling Indian tribe's
      plan to lure tourists to its remote reservation.

      An engineering marvel or a colossal eyesore, depending on who is describing
      it, the horseshoe-shaped glass walkway will jut out 70 feet beyond the
      canyon's edge on the Hualapai Indian Reservation just west of Grand Canyon
      Village. Buttressed by 1 million pounds of steel and supporting 90 tons of
      tempered glass, the see-through deck will give visitors a breathtaking view
      of the canyon.

      When the cantilevered structure opens to the public next month, it will be
      the most conspicuous commercial edifice in the canyon. And, if the tribe's
      plans come to fruition, the Skywalk will be the catalyst for a 9,000-acre
      development, known as Grand Canyon West, that will open up a
      long-inaccessible 100-mile stretch of countryside along the canyon's South
      Rim. The cost of the Skywalk alone will exceed $40 million, tribal
      officials say.

      "Skywalk is the 'wow' that will draw people," said Steve Beattie, the chief
      financial officer for Grand Canyon Resort Corp., the tribe's business arm.
      Construction on an attached 6,000-square-foot visitors center and
      restaurant is to begin after the walkway opens. The Skywalk will charge an
      admission fee of $25, Beattie said, adding that some of the financing will
      come from a private-sector partner.

      Tribal officials say the development, which may eventually include hotels,
      restaurants and a golf course, is the best way to address the social ills
      of a small reservation, where the 2,000 residents struggle with a 50%
      unemployment rate and widespread alcoholism and poverty.

      But off the reservation, many people regard the development and especially
      the Skywalk as tantamount to defacing a national treasure.

      "It's the equivalent of an upscale carnival ride," said Robert Arnberger, a
      former superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park who was born near the
      canyon's South Rim. "Why would they desecrate this place with this?"

      "I've never been able to resolve the apparent conflict between the tribe's
      oft-stated claim that there is no better caregiver and steward of the Grand
      Canyon than the tribe, and their approach to the land -- which is based on
      heavy use and economics," he said.

      "They say the Grand Canyon is theirs to do with however they please. Under
      law, it's hard to argue that proposition. But obviously the lure of dollars
      for the tribal treasury is greater than the obligation to manage the Grand
      Canyon for its cultural and historic values."

      Other critics say the Skywalk and related development will only add to the
      commercialization that has detracted from the experience of nature in the
      national park.

      "What the Grand Canyon needs most is a place for quiet contemplation and
      recreation," said Kieran Suckling, policy director for the Center for
      Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based environmental group. "The Skywalk is
      part of a process that is turning the canyon into a tacky commercial

      Not so, say tribal leaders.

      "You look at the park side, they have 4.5 million people a year -- it's
      Disneyland in itself," said Sheri YellowHawk, a former member of the
      Hualapai tribal council and chief executive of the tribe's business entity.
      "They have too many cars and can't resolve their transportation issues.
      We're looking at their problems and trying to resolve them up front. We've
      gone through 2 1/2 years of going back and forth with cultural assessment
      and biological assessments and community input. We have to find a means to
      self-sustain ourselves. The money is dwindling."

      The Hualapai have worked for years to attract more tourists to their
      1-million-acre reservation. About 200,000 people visit the reservation each
      year. The tribe levies a charge for weddings on the canyon rim and other
      events, including a motorcycle stunt ride in which daredevil Robbie Knievel
      jumped a side canyon. But after a disappointing foray into casino gambling,
      the tribe decided three years ago to launch a one-of-a-kind development at
      the rim of the Grand Canyon.

      The tribe expects the Skywalk to boost tourism at a more modest development
      already in place: a smattering of sites 120 miles east of Las Vegas
      offering experiences that can't be found at the park, including an Old West
      Main Street and cowboy show, an Indian village, horseback riding, wagon
      rides and Humvee tours.

      In addition, the Hualapai operate airplane and helicopter tours that fly
      visitors into the canyon on low-level routes, which are forbidden at the
      national park. After landing beside the river, visitors can embark on
      guided pontoon boat and raft rides -- day tours not offered in the park.
      The tribe's master plan calls for the construction of a cable car to ferry
      visitors from the canyon rim to the river.

      There, the tribe is also seeking to expand tourism. The Grand Canyon
      National Park's Colorado River management plan, finalized in December,
      allows the tribe to take 600 passengers on motorized pontoon boats each
      day, far fewer than the 1,800 daily allotment the Hualapai requested.

      Beattie of Grand Canyon Resort Corp. said the boating restrictions would
      prevent the tribe from expanding river operations, now the tribe's most
      popular tourist attraction. Although it flows through the reservation, the
      river is under federal control.

      Some members of the tribe are uncomfortable with the development. Joe
      Powskey, a Hualapai guide who takes tourists through a newly built Indian
      village adjacent to the Skywalk construction site, said that although
      growth was necessary to give the tribe an economic base, tribal leaders
      needed to be careful not to overdo it.

      "Our priority is not to overdevelop," Powskey said. "We want to kind of
      keep it pristine here."

      Powskey said he was aggrieved to see visitors step down from buses and toss
      cigarette butts around the rim. "We ask people not to smoke. They do. We
      tell them not to throw cigarettes around; the bones of our ancestors are
      buried here."

      Others in the tribe have been critical of what they say is the
      development's lack of sustainability, pointing out that water used here is
      trucked in over miles of unpaved, rutted roads, and that there is no sewer,
      trash, telephone or electrical service. The airport, which is expanding,
      operates on diesel generators. The park, in contrast, has a busy complex of
      hotels, shops and restaurants, most clustered on the South Rim of the
      Canyon, several miles upstream from the reservation. The park does not draw
      water from the river, but from an aging pipeline.

      Tribal officials admit it will be difficult to operate a full-service
      resort without upgrading infrastructure and finding a local source of
      water. Hualapai officials said last week that they were considering taking
      water from the Colorado River.

      Pumping water up nearly a vertical mile from the river to the rim of the
      canyon could be fraught with financial and legal challenges. Joseph Feller,
      who teaches water law at Arizona State University, says no tribe has ever
      taken water from the Colorado without first negotiating with the federal

      The tribe's YellowHawk said: "We're looking at pumping water out of the
      river; that may be our best bet." She added that the tribe was attempting
      to negotiate with the Department of the Interior. Attorneys with the
      department solicitor's office confirmed that the tribe had made initial
      overtures regarding water rights on the Colorado.

      Feller said there was no doubt the Hualapai had long-standing rights to
      water from the Colorado, but how much they may take has not been

      "Usually, you end up with a legal settlement, in which the tribe accepts
      less water than it wants in return for federal financial assistance to put
      the rights to use," he said.

      But once the infrastructure issues are resolved, "there's no end to
      investors who want to be a part of this," Beattie said. "Who doesn't want
      to be part of the Grand Canyon?"

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