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An epic battle between an Italian development company, a local Arizona family and Forest Service officials has split a town in half, while threatening Grand Canyon National Park’s ecological environment.

Dakota Kim  – June 21, 2019 | Updated July 11, 2019

A gateway town to Grand Canyon National Park, perched just 20 minutes from the South Rim entrance, Tusayan has served as the site of an epic development war between Italian developer the Stilo Group and longtime locals the Thurston family for almost thirty years. The tussle for Tusayan goes back—way back, to the 1990s. Now, a new battle is emerging in that war. 

According to Alicyn Gitlin, Grand Canyon Conservation Coordinator at The Sierra Club, the town of Tusayan is expected to apply for a permit for the right of way through Forest Service land that would enable development on the two parcels that Stilo owns adjacent to the town of Tusayan. That permit would allow road improvements and utility corridors, and pave the way to larger developments.

Stilo already has rights to a 270-mile former coal slurry pipeline that could be used to pump drinking water uphill from the Colorado River for its development. If they were to turn to other options besides the pipeline, they would drill wells and pump groundwater, which would threaten the springs in Grand Canyon and the Havasupai Tribe’s water supply and waterfalls, Gitlin said. 

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The pipeline could be a step in the Stilo Group’s plans for an “edutainment” mega-development it likened to Epcot Center in a promotional video published in Phoenix New-Times. The Grand Canyon Chapter of The Sierra Club, The National Parks Conservation Association, Grand Canyon Watchdog, Earth Justice, and activists on Twitter have mobilized against the Stilo development, citing environmental and infrastructural concerns. Gitlin says any Stilo applications will be subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Requests, though a recording details the Forest Service telling Stilo how to avoid a FOIA—which, according to Gitlin, the Forest Service says they detailed only in response to Stilo’s request for that information. 

“It’s been very clear Stilo is trying to confuse people and hide what they are doing,” Gitlin says. “We know that they’re trying to build something, and we will alert the public when their application goes in, so they can take action on it. Americans want the area of the Grand Canyon protected from air, water, and light pollution.”

An Embattled History and a Town Divided

This battle goes back 30 years. Stilo has faced various setbacks in its decades-long quest to develop the hundreds of acres it owns, including rival landowner the Thurston family’s repeated opposition to town incorporation, which would allow the developments to proceed, and the Forest Service’s 2016 denial of Tusayan’s 2014 roadway and utility easements application, which would have allowed the corporation to build 2,100 houses, hotels, restaurants, a spa, and an entertainment pavilion based on Native American themes.

The Tusayan town council itself has been accused of being complicit in Stilo’s quest, with several town council members working for Stilo’s business partner Elling Halvorson and recordings seeming to portray elected town officials conspiring with Stilo to hide information from the public. Tusayan has also recently been forced to halt construction for a housing development on land given to it by Stilo because of flood plain violations, casting doubt on its environmental oversight.

Environmental Concerns

It’s unsurprising that the Forest Service rejected Tusayan’s application—hundreds of thousands signed petitions and sent in their complaints, and numerous Arizona groups opposed the development.

“About 200,000 people sent in their opposition, the second most comments on a project that the Kaibab National Forest ever received, after complaints against the uranium project,” Gitlin said. “Americans care about Grand Canyon.” 

The representative public scoping comments included the concern that Stilo’s development would damage the Kaibab National Forest via vehicles, noise, lights, and air pollution. Commenters voiced concerns that the water needs of an Epcot-sized resort and residential development would dry up the aquifer that feeds Havasu Creek, a drinking and irrigation source for the Havasupai Tribe, and the springs at Grand Canyon National Park, in order to “maintain thousands of dwelling units and millions of square feet of commercial space.” 

A 1999 model created to assess a prior version of Stilo’s development projected that 50 years of groundwater pumping at 300 gallons per minute could reduce spring flows at Indian Gardens by 14 percent and Hermit Springs by eight percent. The Park’s Division of Science and Resource Management added to the water comments, saying that reducing spring flows could endanger plants and animals, eliminate reliable water sources for backcountry hikers and animals, and threaten species diversity, which is 100 to 500 times greater near springs than in surrounding park habitats. 

“What’s really tricky is that in Arizona, we consider surface and groundwater to be governed differently,” Gitlin said. “The Havasupai tribe has amazing waterfalls on their lands, but there’s no way to protect the source of their waterfalls, which is groundwater. It’s really hard for them to protect the quality or quantity of water that reaches their reservation. It’s a really big problem with water law in our state that we refuse to realize groundwater and surface water are connected, and affecting one affects the other.”

Overcrowding at the Park

The Park Service, meanwhile, asserted its concern regarding park infrastructure becoming overwhelmed by increased visitorship brought on by Stilo’s development. The South Rim entrance to Grand Canyon National Park is already crowded, with lines of cars snaking out from the park on peak days. The Park Service anticipated challenges to emergency and medical services, law enforcement, visitor programs, maintenance, and the visitor transportation system to accompany such a large development. Former Grand Canyon Park Superintendent David Uberuaga called the potential Stilo development “[one of] the greatest threat[s] to the Grand Canyon in the 96-year history of the park.” 

Light and Noise Pollution from Grand Canyon National Park Airport

Though the Grand Canyon just received its dark sky designation in celebration of its beautifully starry nights, Gitlin is concerned by the potential of Grand Canyon National Park Airport opening to major commercial flights in the future, saying that helicopter flights and plane tours add to noise and light pollution at the park, and that more commercial flights could add light and noise pollution. The Arizona Department of Transportation has instituted a master plan study, and has purported that its goal is to support tourism. Runway lighting is already clearly visible from the North Rim at Grand Canyon Park.

“There was a proposal from the Arizona Department of Transportation to increase Tusayan airport traffic,” Gitlin says. “If this airport increases and gets regularly-scheduled commercial service, it will definitely bring more noise and light to the park.”

Gitlin’s major concern is that three developments could occur at once: Stilo’s massive tourist development, the appropriation of the water pipeline, and commercial airport development.

The Need for More Housing

Though town manager Eric Duthie wrote in an email that more housing is needed for locals, Gitlin says there is a “weird connection, a contractual connection with Stilo so that the number of houses Tusayan builds is tied to the developer getting the ability to do their own development.” Gitlin says that the town of Tusayan agreed to continue to pursue an easement for the developer, and pursue it legally if necessary. That contractual agreement, she says, should be expiring right about now, and would be renegotiated behind closed doors.

“If all three things happen, they will drastically change the visitor experience and environment at the Grand Canyon,” Gitlin says. “We know housing is needed, but that housing shouldn’t be tied to big development.”