This New Development Could Change the Grand Canyon Forever

A developer is fighting wilderness advocates over a proposal to add hotels, shopping, and new residences to an area in the Kaibab National Forest near the Grand Canyon’s southern rim. If it wins, opponents say, it will cost tribes, hikers, and the ecosystem dearly.

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Grand Canyon visitors might shuttle-hop from one viewpoint to the next, or hike steep switchbacks down the Bright Angel Trail to Indian Garden. They might traverse the South Rim on the Tonto Trail’s sandstone shelf and spend days watching clouds unspool over the tangles of ridges, or drift downriver past countless side canyons hiding oases and spitting waterfalls. All of those experiences could change if a new development project moves forward.

Stilo Development Group has proposed to build 1.8 million square feet of lodging, shops, restaurants, educational facilities, as well as residences and perhaps a hotel or dude ranch near the town of Tusayan, just a few miles from Grand Canyon National Park’s south entrance. The developer says it would create affordable housing and relieve pressure on the park’s aging infrastructure. But opponents say the development threatens the park’s wildlife, water sources, air quality, roads, and even its dark skies. Groundwater impacts might reach deep into the canyon’s seeps and springs, drying out its infamous waterfalls, decreasing biodiversity, and cutting off water sources used by hikers and wildlife.

“Backpackers in the Grand Canyon have a lot to lose over this development,” said Alicyn Gitlin, with the Sierra Club.

Andy Jacobs, a spokesperson for Stilo, said the development aims to improve options for people who spend a night in Tusayan by offering them something more unique than a Motel 6 for their stay, as well as an educational or cultural center to better understand the region’s unique geological and cultural assets.

The acres Stilo owns lie within the Kaibab National Forest, meaning that before construction can start, they’ll need a permit from the Forest Service. In 2016, the Kaibab’s supervisor refused to even finish the environmental review for that permit, citing public controversy, the strain on local and park infrastructure, and impacts to tribal and national parklands. The national park’s then-superintendent, David Uberuaga, wrote that he foresaw development plans leading to “tremendous negative (and possibly irretrievable) impacts on the park infrastructure and resources for which the park was established.”

That 2016 rejection was “confusing,” Jacobs said, but Stilo re-engaged with the agency and the community, and addressed two main issues identified: water and density. They downsized the development by 33 percent and pledged not to use groundwater for its commercial components, said Jacobs. Stilo will soon resubmit their application to the Forest Service.

“We’re hoping that by listening to the public and engaging with a variety of stakeholders, including the Forest Service, that this new proposal will show those stakeholders and the public at large that Stilo is serious about building something that’s right for the area and addresses the needs of the area, but is also sustainable,” Jacobs said.

So far, opponents seem unconvinced.

“It’s just a minor modification to try to pretend there’s a difference,” said Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity. “There’s none.”

What is different now are the leadership mandates from Washington, D.C., where the Trump administration has adopted strongly pro-development approaches.

“We’ve had a leadership change since the last go-round that is like night and day,” Silver said.

Grand Canyon National Park is also between superintendents, leaving vacant the seat from which Uberuaga challenged development before.

The Grand Canyon ranks as the nation’s second most frequently visited national park. Already, roads, parking, and overlooks can get crowded. In the last decade, annual visitation has climbed by 2 million, and its backlog for maintenance needs also stacked up to $313 million.

“If Stilo brings multiple thousands more multiday visitors, that’s a huge impact to add to an already stressed national park unit,” said Gitlin, with the Sierra Club.

But Jacobs said he expects the development only to better accommodate those already visiting the park.

“We haven’t built a thing and visitor numbers have come up by millions,” he said. “We think rather than being a burden on the park, we could actually ease some of that.”

Basic facilities for the town, including the only health clinic and school, lie inside the park. There isn’t even a laundromat in town, Jacobs said. If Stilo moves forward with relocating the RV park from its current site downtown, that could open that space for retail and restaurants.

“We see an opportunity for some businesses that we believe can be profitable in the area,” Jacobs said. “But the other thing we’ve heard from residents is, ‘Yes, we need housing, but it would be nice to have a grocery store in town that doesn’t overcharge for milk or toothpaste.’”

Stilo donated 20 acres to the town to construct affordable, long-term housing. Currently, people working in or near the park face few options for housing, much of it employer-owned trailers or modular homes. But Gitlin pointed out that there’s no assurance now of just how affordable that housing will be.

This revised proposal also works to address concerns about water supplies by committing to not use groundwater for commercial development. That water will instead be driven in, at an estimated rate of 20 trucks per day. Residential development will still draw from the aquifer. Long-term, Jacobs said, Stilo intends to develop an alternative source that would move the entire town off the aquifer and onto something else—perhaps the Colorado River—but the details are still proprietary.

“We’re promising not to use groundwater from the South Rim and hoping to play a role in a bigger solution for the whole region,” Jacobs said. “And if we don’t find a better way or a different source, then we can’t build. It’s as simple as that.”

But until Stilo is willing to share those details, Gitlin said, there’s no way to know what the real impact will be.

“If they’re getting it from somewhere else that already has a water problem, that’s not really giving us much of a solution,” she said.

The groundwater in question draws from an aquifer thousands of feet below Tusayan. In the canyon, where the Colorado River has sliced thousands of feet through the sandstone plateau, that aquifer spills out of the ground in seeps and springs. Each one hosts a unique assembly of plant and animal life—visually stunning, and often significant to local tribes. The inner workings of that water supply and its recharging systems retain some mystery.

“It’s a jigsaw puzzle under the surface,” said Laura Crossey, a geologist who has studied hydrology in the greater Grand Canyon region for 20 years. It’s not clear how much drawing more water from that aquifer might affect flow to seeps and springs, she said, but added, “I just don’t think there’s much to spare. … We may be very near any kind of a sustainable limit already. Or past it.”

Gitlin put a finer point on it: “If they put up thousands of new residences, and those residences are dependent on groundwater, it really could be a death sentence for Grand Canyon springs.”

A popular route sees hikers dropping down the Grandview Trail and following the Tonto Trail to South Kaibab. The springs used to prevent multi-day water carries on that trail would be in the crosshairs.

The Havasupai Tribe, which lives at the canyon bottom, fears the proposal could drain the tribe’s primary water source and Havasu Falls, an aquamarine waterfall accessed on a permit-only overnight hike that sells out within minutes of when the annual sale starts, and affect culturally significant sites.

That, it would seem, runs counter to what a century of protection has tried to provide the Grand Canyon.

“It’s jewel for the world,” Crossey said. “It’s a place that we should be trying to preserve to the best of our abilities.”