Friday, February 13, 2015

Musings: Development, Gondolas, and Tourism in National Parks

Grand Canyon, taken on my trip there in 1999. (Does anyone else remember having those disposable panoramic cameras??)

Cliffs of red sandstone carve and contort the landscape, their steep faces bearing horizontal striations that repeat down, down, down - a mile down - to the shores of the mighty Colorado River, which slowly ground this canyon out of the landscape over eons. It is a breathtaking sight to behold; the play of stark light and shadow over the canyon walls, the dry red dustiness of it all. Looking out across the expanse, you're captured by the immensity of the deep and winding abyss. The Grand Canyon is a truly unique place unlike any other on earth.

According to the National Park Service, five million visitors flock to the Grand Canyon each year. They come to marvel at the magnificent canyon, to hike around, across, and into it. But there is a proposed development project in the works seeking to "enhance" visitors' experience of the canyon.

That thin brown ribbon waaay down there is the Colorado River.

Just imagine... an IMAX theater, shopping center, and hotels to make your Grand Canyon visit more luxurious, exciting, and interesting.  I mean, a big hole in the ground can only hold your attention for so long, you know? And the cherry on top... a gondola ride to the bottom of the canyon! Forget the long hours of trudging down (and back up) a dusty trail. You can now bypass all that hard, sweaty, and satisfying exercise, the lifelong memories, and up-close experience with nature for a breezy 10-minute gondola ride that will deliver you 1.6 miles down to the shores of the Colorado, without having gotten a speck of that red dust on your shoes. And if you get hungry while you're down there, they've got you covered with a "food pavilion," and if you feel like getting some exercise after all, you can take a stroll along the elevated walkways of the "Riverwalk" - whatever that is.

Oh, and never mind that this sprawling tourism complex will be plunked down on 420 acres of ecologically fragile and culturally/spiritually significant landscape.

This project - the so-called Grand Canyon Escalade - is being touted by developers and the Navajo Nation president as an economic opportunity for the Navajo people. However, many members of the Navajo Nation, as well as the nearby Hopi Nation, argue that the project will intrude on some of their most sacred sites, and is not consistent with their ethic of acting as good stewards of the land.

This entire project just feels wrong.  When did the Grand Canyon itself become not enough to hold our attention or fascinate us?  Since when do those red canyon walls need to be framed from the window of an (air-conditioned?) gondola rather than from our own wide-open eyes drinking in the heat-seared expanse?

If a project like this goes through in the Grand Canyon, what's to stop similar projects in our other National Parks?  Could we see a monorail built in Yellowstone?  A gondola to the top of Mount Rainier? A shopping center sprout up in the Olympic rainforest? The thought is abhorrent. These intrusions would not only mar the scenery, but those who partake in their offerings would lose out on an authentic experience with the natural landscape: feet on the ground, sweat on the brow, lungs full of fresh air, and eyes exploring the sky overhead, earth underfoot, and scenery all around.

I read Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire in college, and just finished reading it for a second time a few days ago. When I heard about the proposed development project in the Grand Canyon, I immediately thought of Abbey.  He would have some choice (and not-so-nice) words to say about this insult to one of the world's iconic natural features. Abbey loathed what he called "industrial tourism," that is, the development of National Parks to allow ease of access and increased tourist traffic, which in turn leads to money in the pockets of developers and businesses. He despised paved roads into the parks in particular, arguing:
"What does accessibility mean? Is there any spot on earth that men have not proved accessible by the simplest means - feet and legs and heart?" 
He continues on:
"A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles."
If Abbey felt so strongly about cars, I can only imagine what he would think of a gondola.

What do our National Parks really mean to us? What do we want to see there?  Do we want to see the natural features, the very landscape for which the place was designated a National Park in the first place... or do we want to sit in an air-conditioned IMAX theatre, watch a movie, and then stroll through the shopping center afterward, possibly hazarding a casual glance over our shoulder at the unique, world-renowned, ecologically fragile and culturally significant natural scenery standing silent and half-forgotten in the background? 

What do we want to experience?  Do we want to feel the ground beneath our feet and enjoy every difficult, beautiful, memorable step carrying us from trailhead to destination, or do we want to be ferried quickly to the end goal, snap a few pictures, be ferried back to our vehicles in the parking lot and be on our way?

Which experience most benefits us as individuals? Which is respectful of peoples' cultural and spiritual ties to the land? Which protects the environment and the integrity of the landscape?

Things to think about.

For more information on the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade development, check out this recently-aired NBC news story.

For more information on those trying to save the land from this development and how you can help, check out the Save the Confluence website.

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