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U.S.'s chosen plan for canyon gateway isn’t grand

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After years of wrangling over how to develop a tourist gateway to the Grand Canyon, the federal government has chosen a plan, but the solution pleases no one.

Of eight possible plans, the U.S. Forest Service recently selected the most scaled-down version for Canyon Forest Village, eliminating most of what the Scottsdale-based developers hoped would preserve the canyon's delicate ecosystems and turn the project into an international model.In an unusual twist, nine national environmental groups announced they will campaign to allow Canyon Forest Village to build a larger project. They want the developers to be able to pay for environmental improvements, especially those to prevent the canyon's springs and the world-famous Havasupai waterfalls from going dry.

"This needs to be a model for the entire national park system, and for parks internationally," said Charles Clusen, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C.

Arizona's geologic formation is the nation's second most popular national park (following Great Smoky Mountains), and two of every five Canyon visitors are from another nation.

Opponents, led by business and property owners in the nearby town of Tusayan, seven miles south of the canyon rim, also condemned the Forest Service selection because it would mean more competition without making any environmental improvements.

"Of all the proposals the Forest Service could have selected, this is absolutely the worst one," said Rick Lopez, a Flagstaff city councilman and chairman of No On Canyon Forest Village.

Lopez said the Forest Service selection will be the easiest to defeat because no one likes it. He hopes plans for Canyon Forest Village will dissolve, and Arizona can begin a campaign to regain business from Las Vegas. The casino capital in recent years has become the leading jump-off point for canyon visitors.

Tom De Paolo, managing general partner of Canyon Forest Village, said he was disappointed by the Forest Service pick, but he vowed, with the help of the environmental groups, to push for a larger development that would enable environmental improvements.

De Paolo said his partnership would make the same amount of money from either plan but that his group is committed to pursue an environmentally sensitive design.

Release of the Forest Service's preferred alternative triggers a 45-day public comment period that runs from July 17 through Sept. 2.

The Forest Service review was prompted by park officials' predictions that annual visitation at the canyon will increase to as many as 6.8 million visitors by 2010, a 36 percent increase from the 5 million visitors last year.

A final decision about what to do is expected early next year.

Forest Service spokeswoman Cathie Schmidlin said the alternative suggested was a compromise. She said it took into account the need for park employee housing, community services in Tusayan, the concerns of other tourism-dependent communities and the Forest Service's desire to acquire 12 private parcels scattered through the Kaibab National Forest.

Canyon Forest Village, which owns the inholdings, proposes to trade 2,184 acres of private property, mostly old ranches, to the Forest Service in exchange for about 270 acres of Forest Service land along Arizona 64 at the main entrance to the park.

The larger development requested by Canyon Forest Village would require two acres more than the smaller development recommended by the Forest Service.

The coalition of environmental groups said there needs to be one place away from the canyon wilderness for visitors to sleep, eat and buy things. It should be linked to the park by mass transit, minimize its impact on the environment and be permitted to serve large numbers of visitors far into the next century.

Foremost among the environmental improvements offered by Canyon Forest Village is a plan to haul water from the Colorado River, not as it runs through the canyon, but 220 miles away at Topock, along the Arizona-California line. The water would be hauled by rail to nearby Williams, Ariz., and then piped from there to the edge of the park.

The cost of that water, and other environmental improvements, including energy, water and energy conservation, recycled materials, wastewater reclamation without chemicals and lighting that doesn't wash out the stars, would require a larger development to pay for them, environmentalists said.

The water plan for Canyon Forest Village also could provide water for existing development inside the park at Grand Canyon Village, they said.

Park facilities along the South Rim currently rely on a pipeline that carries water from Roaring Springs, below the North Rim of the canyon. The pipeline generally follows the North Kaibab and Bright Angel trails, and crosses the river near Phantom Ranch. Environmentalists say the pipeline often is broken by landslides, requiring constant maintenance and robbing the canyon of water for wildlife and hikers.

The environmentalists admit they are in an awkward role backing a developer. But by allowing Canyon Forest Village to build a large development, they said, the partnership will have the money needed to protect the canyon environment.

"In attempting to pare down the original proposal, they (Forest Service) lost all the things that made the proposal attractive in the first place," said Brad Ack, director of conservation programs for the Flagstaff-based Grand Canyon Trust.

The environmentalists say some new development is going to happen near the Grand Canyon in the future, and despite recent improvements, they do not trust the developers in the nearby tourist town of Tusayan.

Tusayan developers maintain that they already have paved sidewalks, installed street lighting, adopted landscape, color and design schemes aimed at matching the historic character of the West. They have developed energy- and water-saving techniques.

They say their town, and surrounding communities such as Flagstaff and Williams, are ready to fulfill the needs of growing numbers of park visitors without establishing a "new city."

Environmentalists said that without the land trade that would accompany the Canyon Forest Village plan, they fear the scattered private lands would be developed in a haphazard fashion, using more underground water and reducing the ability of a planned mass-transit system to serve park visitors.

Opponents of Canyon Forest Village contend the land trade is unfair to taxpayers, that the Forest Service has refused to make public its appraisals of the land values and that Canyon Forest Village would swamp the tourism market, leaving established northern Arizona communities in the dust.

Environmental groups have lined up in support of Canyon Forest Village behind the Grand Canyon Trust, the National Resource Defense Council and the National Parks and Conservation Association. They are: the Wilderness Society, American Rivers, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Scenic America, Global Environmental Options and the Environmental Defense Fund.

The Sierra Club, the nation's largest environmental group, is holding out for limits on the number of visitors, and opposes any new development near the canyon.

The Sierra Club maintains that all the proposals to serve the anticipated increases in park visitors focus too much on economic considerations, instead of environmental needs, especially water, waste disposal and wildlife impacts.

The protection of "ecological considerations" are critical to maintaining a quality outdoor recreation experience for people, according to Rick Isetts, editor of Canyon Echo, the newsletter of the Sierra Club's Arizona members.

"These (ecological) values," Isetts said, "are incompatible with materialistic interests that are best managed by a shopping mall located appropriately in a larger city, certainly not on the border of our greatest national park."