White Jankowski Lawyers

Navajo Nation Council votes down proposal to build resort development on tribal land at the Grand Canyon

November 14, 2017

On October 31st, the Navajo Nation Council voted down a proposal to construct a resort development on tribal land at the East Rim of the Grand Canyon, ending a years-long battle that involved local residents, tribal officials, outside developers, environmentalists, and the U.S. National Park Service.

The Council voted 2-16 to oppose the legislation, “which sought the Navajo Nation’s approval of a master agreement for the development of the Grand Canyon Escalade Project, and funding in the amount of $65 million for the development of infrastructure for the project site.”

Development of the rural land surrounding the proposed site has only been possible since 2008, when the federal government lifted a moratorium on development for the area that had existed for nearly 50 years.  In 1962 a federal court declared that both the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation had joint rights to large portions of land in Northern Arizona, and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs responded by implementing “a freeze on any development on the disputed land . . . . including the building of houses, improvement to property, public work projects, power and water lines, publican agency improvements, and associated rights of way.”  S. Rep. No. 110-462, at 2 (2008).  The undeveloped character of the region can be traced back to the failed policy, and by 2008 “[o]nly three percent of the families affected by the Bennett Freeze [had] electricity, and only ten percent [had] running water.”  Id.  But that year, Congress put an end to the ban on development, and Phoenix-based developers immediately began to explore tourism opportunities on the land, which borders the Colorado River and Grand Canyon National Park.  Id.

The proposal included a gondola tramway to shuttle tourists from the Grand Canyon rim down to a boardwalk and café constructed on the shore of the Colorado River and called for the withdrawal of 420 acres perched high above the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers on an area considered sacred and religious to many local tribes.  Press Release, The Hopi Tribe, Hopi Tribal Chairman Thanks Navajo Nation Tribal Council for Saving Land Sacred to Both Tribes (Nov. 1, 2017).

The vote comes as a victory for parties that fought against the development for many years, including Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, the Hopi Tribe, the Zuni Tribe, the National Park Service, the Grand Canyon Trust, and Save the Confluence, a grassroots coalition of local residents.  Proponents of the legislation cited the economic potential of the tourism operation “to create thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in annual revenue for the Navajo Nation” and to replace the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant slated to close in 2019, as the economic driver of the regional economy.  But Navajo Nation Council delegates found the legislation one-sided in favor of the developers, citing the non-revocable nature of the license to operate the project, a covenant not to compete with businesses located at the site, and a required waiver of sovereign immunity by the Navajo Nation.  Press Release, 23rd Navajo Nation Council, Office of the Speaker, Navajo Nation Council Votes Down the Grand Canyon Escalade Project Bill (Oct. 31, 2017).

In the end, the Navajo Nation Council voted to disapprove the agreement despite several attempts to amend it.  The vote effectively ends the developers’ immediate hopes to build the resort and gondola; however, a new measure could be proposed after next year’s elections if more development-friendly officials are elected.  Interest in the undeveloped land will likely continue given its scenic location in the tourist-rich Grand Canyon region.  However, Save the Confluence, the Grand Canyon Trust, and other interested parties plan to continue the fight for permanent protection of the confluence area.

Enter your email address to receive our latest blog posts.