Is the Grand Canyon doomed? The national park faces its biggest threat in 95 years

Two new developments have been planned that could pose a threat to the park

Published July 9, 2014 9:45PM (EDT)

  (Lance Longwell)
(Lance Longwell)

The National Park Service is worried about the fate of the Grand Canyon. The geological wonder is facing a new threat from planned developments in the area, which the Park Service is calling the biggest peril that the park has faced in 95 years.

A mesa, belonging to the Navajo Indian Reservation, is currently a hub of construction, according to the Los Angeles Times. Restaurants, hotels, shops and a gondola -- to transport tourists unable to hike to the bottom of the canyon -- are planned for the area. A second, unrelated development to add new housing and commercial buildings has also been proposed -- and the National Park Service is worried.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

"The first would alter the natural beauty of the canyon and encroach on its borders. The second, a major housing and commercial development, jeopardizes the fragile ecology and water supply on the arid South Rim plateau. The Tusayan development would add 2,200 homes and 3 million square feet of commercial space to a town two blocks long.

Park officials say existing development around the park and the scarcity of water have already stressed the park's ability to handle visitors. The new projects would only make matters worse.

'They are serious threats to the future of the park,' said park Supt. Dave Uberuaga. 'When you have that size and scope of potential development that close to the park, it will impact our visitor experience.'"

The plans for the gondola are not finalized, in part due to a conflict over whether the Navajo Indian Reservation or the federal government has jurisdiction to property above the water mark of the canyon. The tribe itself also has to approve of the project, and there have been objections.

Another huge issue with the planned developments is water. "The park's main gateway community of Tusayan has approved plans for a development that would increase the town's demand for water fourfold," according to the Los Angeles Times.

What they can't readily answer is where this extra water will come from -- especially given Arizona's record drought.

"That kind of water just isn't around there," Uberuaga told the Los Angeles Times. Regardless, Uberuaga says the city is still pursuing "a full buildout and full development at whatever pace the developer wants."

Tom De Paolo, a Tusayan developer, along with the partners in Stilo Development Group have been trying to build at the Grand Canyon since 1991. They have been looking into water options including taking water from the plateau's aquifer, or revamping an old coal pipeline to carry water to the park and town.

Water shortages are already an issue for the park. Park officials told the Los Angeles Times that when their 13 million gallon water tanks get below half-full, they consider cutting back at the park entrance.

National Park officials are trying to convince the town of Tusayan to rethink the scale of its plans.

The National Parks Conservation Association's Dave Nimkin told the Los Angeles Times that the developments present "profound and enormous threats to the park." He calls it "a grim forecast."

h/t The Los Angeles Times

By Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email

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Developers Grand Canyon National Park National Park Service Sustainability