Conflict at the confluence

(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

Mary Ann Nockaideneh, who grew up and raised her family near the Confluence, where the Little Colorado River meets the Colorado River, looks at the Grand Canyon during a meeting on Sunday. Local residents oppose a plan to build a helicopter pad at the site for Grand Canyon tours.

As the tribe eyes the Grand Canyon rim for tourism, locals fear they're being overlooked

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

BODAWAY/GAP, Ariz, July 15, 2010

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

The place where the Little Colorado River meets the Colorado River, called the Confluence, is considered sacred by local residents.

It was only a matter of time, perhaps, before the breathtaking triangular cliff jutting between the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers was discovered.

With the Bennett Freeze thawed, one might argue, it's only logical for the cash-strapped Navajo Nation to ponder the tourism possibilities at one of its most spectacular corners.

But the handful of traditional shepherds and college-educated returnees who populate the area wants the tribe, and the federal government, and the tourism companies, to keep one thing in mind.

"To you, it's spectacular scenery," said Delores Aguirre, secretary of Bodaway/Gap Chapter's land use planning committee and a grazing permit holder at the confluence of the two rivers. "To us, it's our backyard."

Aguirre and other stakeholders say they were shocked to read in a local newspaper about negotiations between the tribe and a helicopter tour company for a landing pad and ramada overlooking the confluence. They fear they're being left on the ground as development plans take flight.

Navajo Nation Council Resources Committee Chairman George Arthur says that's not the case. He says the committee has been working on this idea for four years and made periodic presentations to the chapter.

To which Arizona Republic columnist Betty Reid, who grew up at the confluence and was recently granted an enviable home-site lease practically within view of the rivers, responded, "Who goes to chapter meetings?"

'Never been out here'

Reid and Aguirre, cousins and members of the extended family whose grazing permit includes the confluence overlook, believe Arthur, the Navajo Nation's Parks and Recreation Department, and both helicopter companies that run flights over the Grand Canyon should have been meeting with the local residents since they first got the idea to develop the canyon rim.

I don't like strangers walking around out here. They scare me. One time a fisherman climbed up here from the river. He looked like a cave man. From a ways off, I thought he was a mountain lion.
- Alice Dougi.

"He (Arthur) has never even been out there," Reid said. "How can you make plans for an area without ever setting foot on it?"

Since Diné spirituality is somewhat localized, Reid fears the majority of Navajos - including Arthur, who hails from the eastern side of the reservation - do not understand the sacredness of the confluence to the people who live there.

Aguirre's older brother, Wilson O. Wilson, explained that the Little Colorado - which flows underground for several miles before emerging and converging with the Colorado - is a female entity. The much larger, roaring Colorado is male.

The place where the two rivers mate is a place of intense creative energy, and for generations the denizens of the cliffs above the spot have prayed and left offerings at the very place the tribe and the tour company want to place a helo pad.

Arthur said he's well aware of that, but he believes the landing pad can be strategically placed to avoid offering sites.

"All they need is an acre," he said. "The Historical Preservation Committee has been involved in these discussions all along, and they're tasked with protecting cultural sites."

4 flights per day

The area is already far from tranquil. During a two-hour meeting of the land use planning committee at the site Sunday, this reporter counted 13 tour helicopters flying directly overhead, making enough noise to disrupt the meeting.

The airspace is controlled by the National Park Service and the Federal Aviation Administration, and the flight regulations are up for renewal every 10 years, with input from the public. Both entities would have to approve any changes in the flight patterns, including landings.

The company the tribe has been working with - Papillon Airways Inc. - has proposed to add four flights per day to its schedule which would land at the confluence overlook: two from Tusayan, Ariz. - an off-reservation South Rim town where it already has a staging area - and two from Cameron, Ariz.

However, Cameron Chapter has been independently negotiating with Papillon's competitor, Maverick Grand Canyon Helicopters, for its own landing pad and tours. Cameron Chapter Vice President Dorothy Scott reported Wednesday the talks with Maverick are close to fruition, and the chapter would resist any effort by the tribe to "play Big Brother" and interfere.

Here at the confluence, though, the land falls within the boundaries of the Little Colorado Tribal Park, established in 1962 but never really developed. Reid and Aguirre fear the tribe will use that leverage to go ahead with its plans and sidestep the locals.

Arthur said that's not possible.

"The way the land use regulations are, we have to go to the grazing permit holders," he said. "There's no way around it. We just aren't to that stage yet."

Creating jobs

Papillon, for its part, says it's committed to helping both the tribe and the local area with economic development.

Gary Scaramazzo, Papillon's liaison to the Navajo Nation and a former mayor of Page, Ariz., says he's lived just north of the Navajo Nation border for 30 years.

"During that time, the chronic complaint I hear from the Navajos is 'There's no jobs, there's no opportunity,'" he said. "We were asked by the Resource Committee to worth with Parks and Recreation to come up with a tourism plan not just for the Canyon rim but for the whole Navajo Nation. Our question throughout this whole process is, 'How can we develop jointly to expand opportunities on the reservation?'"

The Papillon proposal for the helicopter flights includes a landing fee and a flight fee that would go into the tribal coffers, but the locals will benefit as tourism increases and development grows, he said.

"We want to see local businesses spring up," he said. "One of our proposals down the road is a hotel and conference center, which would employ local people, and eventually a trade school that would train people for the hospitality industry and as helicopter mechanics."

Scaramazzo said Papillon has already demonstrated it wants to be a good neighbor.

"Are these folks forgetting the big snowstorm of last winter?" he asked. "We went in there with a helicopter full of hay and supplies. There was nothing in it for Papillon."

Local opposition

Reid and Aguirre say they're not opposed to development as long as some of the benefits are directed specifically to the residents of the Canyon rim, victims of the 40-year Bennett Freeze. But at the land use meeting, some of their older relatives made clear that they would oppose any sort of landing on the rim.

"I don't like strangers walking around out here," declared Alice Dougi in Navajo. "They scare me. One time a fisherman climbed up here from the river. He looked like a cave man. From a ways off, I thought he was a mountain lion."

After discussing the matter for two hours and hearing from both Little Colorado Tribal Park Director Helen Webster and Council Delegate Evelyn Acothley (Gap/Bodaway/Cameron/Coppermine), the committee decided to call another meeting for July 26 and invite all the parties - the Resource Committee, Parks and Recreation, Historical Preservation, local residents and both helicopter companies.

The meeting will be at 10 a.m. at the Bodaway/Gap Chapter House.

Meanwhile, the Resources Committee is considering a draft resolution requesting the tribe's recommendations be included in the next flight plan for the Grand Canyon.

Among those recommendations is that a helipad be designated on the canyon floor just north of the confluence, and that Vice President Ben Shelly be authorized to execute "any and all documents" concerning overflight affecting the western portion of the Navajo Nation, according to a press release from Shelly's office.

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