Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, barely 48 hours into his term, is saying plans to develop a portion of the Grand Canyon won't happen under his watch.
The area for the proposed "Escalade" project is on the northern edge of the canyon on the Navajo Nation. It would cover nearly 420 acres and would bring a tram transporting visitors from the rim to the river, hotels, fast food chains, a cultural museum and 20,000 square feet of retail space.
"The current stance, which has always been the stance of the president and myself, is that the Escalade project is not in the best interest of the Navajo Nation," said Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez.
Confusion over Begaye's stance on the issue erupted after he signed an agreement with outgoing president Ben Shelly during his inauguration that states in part: "the Begaye-Nez administration agrees to carry out the following projects on behalf of the Navajo Nation," and lists the Escalade project as one of eight items.
Begaye was unavailable for an interview with 12 News, but did provide this statement:
"The agreement signed yesterday during the inauguration between President Russell Begaye and outgoing Ben Shelly was historic and a symbolic gesture of Ahil na' anish, a smooth transition and an agreement in principle as a new administration takes office. The listing of projects on the agreement are those of the Shelly-Jim administration.
The Begaye-Nez administration will vet and evaluate each project and determine whether the project will be in the best interest of the Navajo Nation and our people. As for the project, Grand Canyon Escalade, this administration has already stated it does not support the Grand Canyon Escalade project and that position has not changed, as Mr. Begaye has stated, it is not in the best interest of the Navajo Navajo and the Navajo people."
Nez said any attempts to pass legislation to proceed with the development would be vetoed by the president. Nez said the administration's stance on the issue stems from opposition from nearby communities who view the area as a sacred place and are advocating to protect the land.
The "Save the Confluence" group has been working to stop the development since 2012 and said the project would force Navajos in the area to give up livestock grazing permits and homesite leases.
"I think it was a sigh of relief," said Sarana Riggs, a member of Save the Confluence. "But we wanted actual confirmation in a press release."
Riggs emailed Begaye after the inauguration, questioning his stance on the issue and was assured his position had not changed. For now, the president's public statement reiterating his opposition is enough for the group to breath a little easier, but they still want a face-to-face meeting.
"I am also hoping in the near future that we will set up a meeting with Mr. Begaye and possibly the other leaders of the tribal council and other tribes to ensure that this will actually be stopped," Riggs said. "And to possibly enforce and impose new regulations on the area."