Navajo grazing permit leaseholders Marie and Ernest Peyketewa and Franklin Martin talk about the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade project at the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado Rivers.

The Navajo Nation Council will not take up a controversial Grand Canyon gondola-ride proposal during its spring session.

The heart of the project, known as the Grand Canyon Escalade, is a 1.6-mile gondola tram ride that would drop 3,200 feet into the Canyon, taking visitors from rim to river in about 10 minutes. The project would also include commercial and retail space, multimedia complex, a river walk and administrative buildings.

The proposal must be taken up by four committees before the council votes on it, including the Naabik’iyati’ Committee, where the entire council will debate the bill.

But the Naabik’iyati’ Committee has yet to take it up.

Larry Foster, a former Navajo council member and political adviser watching the bill’s progress, said the measure is struggling to gain broad support on the council. He compared it with Republican efforts in Congress to revamp the Affordable Care Act. When they realized they lacked the votes, they pulled the bill.

“It’s like Obamacare, they didn’t have the votes,” Foster said.

MORE: Is a gondola ride in the Grand Canyon’s future?

The Escalade bill was first introduced in August 2016. Two committees have voted against it and a third voted to table it. The committee votes are not binding — the council could pass the bill even if it fails in committee.

“They don’t have the votes. I think until they do it’s not in their interest to bring it to the council,” said Roger Clark, of the group Grand Canyon Trust. “The question is what do they do then?”

Grand Canyon at risk

Backers appear to be trying to line up more support, and the bill could remain alive until late 2018, when a new council is elected.

Lamar Whitmer, of Confluence Partners, the company promoting the project, said it was never their intention to bring the bill to a vote in the spring session.

The bill has divided Navajos in the Bodaway-Gap chapter, where the gondola would be built.

Proponents say the project would bring jobs to the cash-strapped reservation. Opponents say it could desecrate the region and transform the Grand Canyon from a national park into an amusement park.

Some council members have questioned details of the proposal in committee meetings. The Navajos must come up with $65 million to start the project for example, and will receive 8 to 18 percent of gross revenue, with outside investors getting the rest.

Foster said some people would like to see the bill come to a vote soon “so the chapter can heal.”

The spring session ends later this week. The summer session will convene July 17.

“We were hoping it would be done by this week,” Foster said.


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