What a year it has been. Working on and writing about the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade has been fascinating, enlightening and a learning experience. My background is largely technical, where logic and reason rule, so stepping into the very emotional and politically charged Escalade project has been very new to me. With Christmas and the New Year approaching, I felt the need to write down my thoughts on the past year and to look ahead to next year.
The year started with a helicopter ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to visit first-hand the proposed location of the gondola landing and the Riverwalk. We landed about a mile upstream of the Confluence in the Little Colorado River gorge and hiked to the Confluence with the Colorado River. We were accompanied by a Cultural Affairs Specialist from the Navajo Nation who was there to identify Traditional Cultural Places (TCP’s, some of which are known as “Sacred Sites”) and explain to us the complexities of TCP’s, how some are sacred, some are not and some are more sacred than others. We also learned the difference between a sacred site and a prayer offering site and more. With instruction from our Cultural Affairs Specialist we all performed the corn pollen offering and prayer before we left the Confluence. I also saw (although we were careful not to visit) the Hopi sipapu, where the Hopi are said to have emerged into the current Fourth World from the previous Third World. I went on to become educated about the Navajo Nation Cultural Resources Protection Act which requires by law the protection and preservation of TCP’s (and “Sacred Sites”) and agreements between the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Nation regarding protection of the Salt Trail and Little Colorado River Gorge access to the Hopi sipapu. We also solicited help and guidance from multiple Traditional Cultural Specialists (so called “Medicine Men”) regarding what was right and proper in terms of the Project and the Confluence and the point above the Confluence on the Canyon rim.
So I was more than a little dismayed when the opponents to the project seized upon “Save the Sacred Sites” as a slogan and rallying cry in their campaign against the Escalade project and alleging the project would desecrate “Sacred Sites”. What bothered me the most was that the opponents were aware that this cannot occur by Navajo law and regulation and still made the claims and enlisted well-meaning but poorly educated believers in their cause. I was corresponding with one of the leaders of SavetheConflunce via Facebook and I conceded that while using the Sacred Sites issue was an effective tool in their campaign, I felt strongly that it was ultimately destructive to the Navajo community and would do far more harm than good to their cause in the long-term. I understand that a campaign is being waged by both sides in this debate, and both sides are highlighting their side of the story, but to me intentionally seizing on and misleading on religious issues is and was wrong and improper. My understanding is that the opposition leaders are not practitioners of traditional Navajo religious beliefs. If they were I doubt they would have used this tactic. I do know that they did not elevate their status in the eyes of most Navajo that I have spoken with.
Another of my tasks this past year was to analyze the feasibility and practicality of building a gondola to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Most people don’t realize that current Navajo and U.S. Environmental Law require the measurement, mitigation and monitoring of any impacts from construction and operation of new facilities within any environmentally sensitive area. In doing this analysis I looked at other major construction projects within the Grand Canyon in the past. The most relevant project that we looked at was the highway bridge across the Colorado River at Marble Canyon that was built in 1995. The construction of this bridge was far more impactful on the canyon and the river below than anything proposed at the Escalade project and yet has had virtually no negative impact on the canyon or the river. Millions of people cross this bridge each year. Yet there was no outcry from rafters, environmentalists or people opposed to the desecration of the Canyon. It is and will continue to be far more visible than anything proposed at the Escalade project. There are many more examples available, from ongoing construction and improvements at Lee’s Ferry, to the work at Phantom Ranch, etc. Frankly, from a factual and non-emotional standpoint, Construction of the Escalade project will have very little impact to the canyon or the river when compared to the Marble Canyon Bridge and will have many positive benefits in terms of enhancing river and Canyon monitoring and policing.
I also learned that much of what we think of as news is really advocacy disguised as journalism. We were contacted by several news outlets wanting to run stories on the proposed Escalade project. We initially cooperated only to find that these were advocacy pieces with an agenda that intentionally misrepresented or omitted facts to fit their agenda (save the earth, save the planet, save the Canyon, etc.). I was naively shocked to see how poorly researched and written news stories were picked up and reposted on multiple websites without a fact check or an attempt at verification. It really hit home when I received a comment on our website from a very distressed individual opposed to the project because she had heard and read on the Web and Facebook that we were going to have fast food restaurant signs hanging in the Grand Canyon and open sewage pits and bright lights illuminating the Canyon from the rim. I responded to her comments assuring her that her fears were unfounded, explained to her that doing any of these things would make people not want to visit the project which works against our interests, and went on to have a very nice conversation about the project and our intentions. The old adage about buyer beware really applies to information in this new age. You have to be very careful in choosing what information to believe and pro-active in getting your own story out early and often.
This brings me to my experience building the Escalade website and Facebook presence and receiving and responding to the comments from readers. I personally viewed our web presence not just as an electronic file cabinet for technical details of the project, but as a way to educate people on why we were proposing the project, why the project was important and to explain our point of view. I also felt it was important to respond to comments, to thank the many people who supported the project and to at least try and set the record straight with those who opposed it. The comments we received educated me on how others viewed the project and why they held the views they held. Often, the comments that we received became the inspiration for the posts that I would write at a later date. What really opened my eyes was how within minutes of a new post on our website, or a new comment posting to Facebook, hundreds of people would be instantly alerted and begin reading and responding which set off another round of views and comments. This really is the new world where a cellular smart-phone is essential and we can communicte with hundreds and thousands of people simultaneously and instantly. The downside of this new world of communication is that people can toss verbal fireballs at will without any repercussions and feel no need to really engage or think. I have come to believe that this lack of accountability and human interaction leads to the gridlock we see at so many levels these days, particullarly in government. It is so easy to just be against things and find fault with everyone and everything without offering any alternative. In another of my Facebook conversations with one of the leaders of the SavetheConfluence opposition I wrote that their concerns about the Escalade project and some of its sponsors could be much better addressed by becoming a participant in the process. At least that way they could help shape the outcome rather than have no outcome. I felt then and feel now that simply stopping the project while providing no real alternative helped no-one and wasn’t a victory to be proud of.
So after several months of writing and reading and responding about Escalade, support or opposition to the project tends to come down to haves and have-nots. Those that generally live off the reservation and have homes, jobs, running water, electricity and access to schools, medical care and modern services oppose the project, hold the Grand Canyon as a “sacred church” as one commenter referred to it, and feel that the Navajo should abdicate their rights to determine the uses on their lands adjacent to the Grand Canyon. Those that live on the Navajo Reservation, with limited job opportunities, limited or no modern utilities, and without ready access to basic services and conveniences support the project, view the Canyon as a natural wonder and believe the lands which lie within the borders of the Navajo Nation should be used to provide for the sustainable economic development of the Western Region in particular and the Navajo Nation in general just as Canyon DeChelly, Monument Valley and other areas have seen responsible development. It really is as simple as that. All the talk about sacred sites and save the confluence and this and that is nothing more than a distraction from the real bottom line. If you are doing just fine and your world is good then there is no need to do this project because there is nothing in it for you. I don’t mean to sound overly harsh, but that is the cold hard reality of the situation.
This brings me to looking forward. What will the Navajo Nation President and Council Delegates do, or will they do nothing? The Bodaway/Gap Chapter voted to approve the project and then elected a new Chapter President that is a supporter of the project. So the local support that President Shelly requested has been provided in clear and convincing fashion. The fate of the project is really in the President and Councils hands now.
In considering their options on how to deal with the Escalade project, one must look at a bigger picture. According the Navajo tribal government, almost 48% of all Navajo are now forced to live off reservation because of a lack of jobs, housing and basic services. They predict that by 2014 more than half of all Navajo will be living off reservation. The amount of money leaving the reservation as a result of this exodus is staggering. According to the Navajo Nation Economic Development Department, 71% of all money earned by Navajo’s is spent in off-reservation communities and this revenue loss will grow larger as more and more Navajo are forced to leave the reservation. At the same time, the primary sources of jobs and income to the Navajo and the Navajo Nation are the coal burning electricity generating stations across northern Arizona and the coal mining operations that feed them. According to the NN Economic Development Department, royalties, taxes and business payments from mining operations account for 30% of the total Navajo Nation general budget revenues and 80% of the workers in the coal operations are Navajo. When the generating stations are forced to close or significantly cut back operations, and with recent EPA rulings against coal burning by the operators of the plants they certainly will in the foreseeable future, the current 50% unemployment rate on the Navajo Nation and corresponding poverty rate will explode at the same time that Navajo Nation revenues and ability to provide services will plummet. What then? What are they going to do to prepare for that inevitable day? That is the real decision facing President Shelly and the Council Delegates.
That is why the Escalade project is so important. If the project is built it will replace up to 30-35% of current general budget revenues and provide stability to the entire Navajo Nation, not just the Bodaway-Gap and Cameron areas. So while there is a widespread perception that this project is primarily about people getting rich off the Navajo Nation and the Grand Canyon, the basic premise has always been on how to remedy the widespread poverty and resulting social impacts of the Western Agency area. Yes, theoretically some people will make money, but that should not obscure the tremendous positive benefit that the project will have for the local population and the Navajo Nation as a whole. My response to those who say that the financial projections are overstated and a fantasy is that they are probably understated and the project will be much more successful than projected. But assuming for the sake of argument that I concede the point and say they are overstated by 100% and will produce only half of what is projected. This would still amount to 15-18% of the current general budget revenues to the Navajo Nation. There is nothing that has been proposed by opponents to the project or by the Navajo Nation Economic Development Department that produces even a small fraction of the return to the Nation that Escalade will bring and at the cost of less than half of one new casino. I personally believe that this is what is behind much of the Hopi opposition to the project. They have recently embarked on an ambitious plan to open up parts of their reservation to tourism and new development. I think they are terrified that the Escalade project will pre-empt their plans and siphon off the tourism business they are counting on. They are even more dependent on coal revenues than the Navajo Nation and certainly see the same handwriting on the wall. The Salt Trail and sipapu issues are nothing more than cover in my opinion.
To me, the Navajo Nation President and Council have no choice but to formally move forward with serious consideration and examination of the project. Yes, there are many issues still to resolve, yes there is much scrutiny, due diligence and underwriting to be done. There will have to be appraisals, environmental assessments, cultural reviews, and evidence of financial capacity presented by Confluence Partners before the final green light is given. If the project proves to be unworkable so be it. But to do nothing? That would be the worst of all outcomes. But then, I come from a world of logic and reason and cause and effect, not the world of politics and emotion that this project has found itself in.
Have a wonderful Holiday Season and a peaceful and prosperous New Year. It will certainly be fascinating to see how this all plays out.