Tribe's canyon Skywalk opens one deep divide
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
"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
"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
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?"