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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Gateway to the Grand Canyon

Air Date: Week of

Many federal and local officials are supporting a large gateway development for the Grand Canyon, called "Canyon Forest Village." Even several environmental groups are getting behind the proposed complex, which will include 1300 hotel rooms and enough retail space for four department stores. From member station KNAU, Mitch Teich (TYSH) reports that Canyon Forest Village could become a model for easing overcrowding at national parks nationwide.


CURWOOD: Many Americans have wrapped up their summer vacations, but many national parks are still doing brisk business. At Grand Canyon National Park, for example, the family mini-van count may be down, but there are plenty of senior tour busses and visitors from abroad clogging the roads. Nearly five million people visit the Grand Canyon each year, and the National Park Service predicts that number will rise to seven million a year by 2020. With area lodging already tight, many federal and local officials are getting behind a large, gateway development for the park called Canyon Forest Village. From Member station KNAU, Mitch Teich reports that Canyon Forest Village could become a model for how to ease overcrowding at our national parks.

(Plane engines)

TEICH: Tom Gillett of the U.S. Forest Service walks alongside a dirt road that cuts through an area of white pines, underbrush, and vast expanses of dirt and rocks. Sightseeing airplanes and helicopters buzz overhead. He's just outside the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park, and about eight miles from the gorge itself. It's at this spot that Canyon Forest Village would spring up.

GILLETT: This area actually is pretty conducive in its state right here for parking, in that it's an old fire scar. So, a lot of the vegetation has already been removed. A few stands of older trees. We're going to try to retain as much of this natural vegetation and larger trees as possible.

TEICH: It's uninhabited and undeveloped, but you would hardly call this pristine wilderness. Tom Gillett's role with the Forest Service includes directing the study of growth in the Grand Canyon area. He says building a large-scale development here is a better option than using more unspoiled wilderness.


GILLETT: You can hear the highway -- Highway 64 to the east of us, oh, probably a quarter of a mile. We're in the flight path of Grand Canyon Airport -- third-busiest airport in the state, so it's already heavily impacted.

TEICH: And if Canyon Forest Village is built, “heavily impacted” won't even begin to describe it. The area would become home to almost 13 hundred hotel rooms, enough retail space for four department stores, housing for park employees, and even the Grand Canyon's public school. But for Tom Gillett, one of the most important -- and overlooked -- benefits of the Canyon Forest Village development is that it nets the Forest Service far more acres than it gives up. In exchange for ceding 272 acres of land to the village's developer, the Forest Service will receive more than eight times as much private land in return -- land it can now protect from development.

GILLETT: It helps protect the resources of Grand Canyon, it will help improve the visitor experience at Grand Canyon. And it does so in a sustainable way -- a way that sets a new standard for development near sensitive lands.

TEICH: It's that new standard that has many environmentalists taking the unusual position of supporting a development right next to a national park. Brad Ack of the Grand Canyon Trust is one of those environmentalists. He says sadly, the allure of some of the most beautiful country in the world means development is almost inevitable.

ACK: We knew there was going to be future development, and we knew there was very little that we could do about it as an environmental group unless we could come up with the money to buy all the private land around the Grand Canyon. That would have been in the hundreds of millions of dollars, so we quickly discounted that notion, and thought the next best thing would be to play a strong role in deciding what kind of development was going to take place.

TEICH: And so the Grand Canyon Trust took an unprecedented step. Brad Ack and his colleagues sat down with the developer of Canyon Forest Village and explored ways to create a development that would be as gentle on the local ecosystem as a 272-acre development can be. As a result of those talks, the village will import its water from the Colorado River, rather than tapping the precious existing groundwater. And, it will rely on renewable and alternative energy and a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment system.

ACK: It will essentially meet a higher standard of environmental design than any other development near a national park that we're aware of.

TEICH: Since Canyon Forest Village has the support of environmentalists, the U.S. Park Service, the Forest Service, and even some area politicians, you would think that the plan is on the fast track. Not entirely.

(A train whistle blows)

TEICH: Thousands of people start their Grand Canyon visit by hopping on the historic railway that departs here in Williams, Arizona. The town copyrighted the phrase "Gateway to the Grand Canyon" 15 years ago, and people here are worried that Canyon Forest Village could devastate their community. Williams is 60 miles south of the Grand Canyon, and has almost as many hotel rooms as residents. Michael Vasquez is the president of the Williams-Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce.

VASQUEZ: We have relied on the overflow of the Grand Canyon and/or the inability for the South Rim and Tusayan to have rooms for people every night, especially during the summer. And again, once people get up there, they're not going to turn around and come back.

TEICH: Michael Vasquez's group and the city of Flagstaff have each appealed the Forest Service's ruling that Canyon Forest Village should go forward. Both entities are concerned about the millions of dollars potentially at stake. But the Flagstaff suit also calls into question the development's use of groundwater while the village is under construction. A decision on the appeals is expected in November, after which the plan would still need to clear several more legislative hurdles.

(Ambient voices from the crowd)

TEICH: Regardless of the future amenities outside the park, tourists will always come to the Grand Canyon for the mile-deep gorge itself.

JARRELL: Turn around and look behind you. This is called Mather Point. Where land goes out into the canyon, it's called a point. This one is named after Steven Ting Mather, the first National Park Service director in the United States.

TEICH: Tour guide Kevin Jarrell is worried about the effect Canyon Forest Village could have on the canyon. His tour company, based in Flagstaff, already tries to lessen tourism's impact on the canyon to the point that even the lunches his groups pack are eaten on metal plates, which then leave the park with him every afternoon. He says losing any acreage in the national forest is bad policy, and any development the size of Canyon Forest Village would come at too great a cost to areas like national parks.

JARRELL: These areas were set aside to be benchmark areas -- undeveloped -- so we would have an idea, when we go back home, what is wrong in our own communities. You start developing in those areas, then that dilutes -- that lessens the area.

TEICH: But other environmentalists, such as Brad Ack of the Grand Canyon Trust, say at this point, development near the Grand Canyon is probably a sure thing. But he says rather than mourning the loss of a small parcel of forest, he hopes the lessons of cooperation between environmental groups, the government, and developers can be applied to the heavily-impacted areas outside Yellowstone and Yosemite and other national parks. For Living on Earth, I'm Mitch Teich at the Grand Canyon.

WOMAN: Come on, let's go over here, Anthony.



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