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Short Film Raises Concerns About Escalade Project

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The Grand Canyon will get a lot of attention Saturday night in Flagstaff, as the city’s Mountain Film Festival hosts a special event called, “Celebration of the Grand.” There will be several presentations and films that focus on the canyon, including one called “Keep It Grand.” The short film explores the wide-ranging impacts of the proposed and controversial Escalade Project. Dan Ferrara is a New York-based filmmaker who wrote and directed the film, and spoke to KNAU's Aaron Granillo.

Aaron Granillo: Can you bring us up to speed. Give us some general background on the Escalade project? What it is it, and where would it be located if built?

Ferrara: The Escalade Project is a proposed high end resort on the rim of the Grand Canyon, east of the national park, which is actually on Navajo land. The resort would be located above what's known as the confluence, which is where the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River meet within the Grand Canyon. Now, the main attraction of the Escalade is actually a tramway or a gondola that would take as many as 10,000 people per day down to the river in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. And so that gondola would be the main attraction of the tourism development.

Now, I want to play clip from the film from Renae Yellowhorse. She’s a native Navajo and outspoken critic of the Escalade. And she brings up an issue with the project that a lot of people are talking about.

Yellowhorse: "And our questions come up with that is, okay 10,000 people a day. Where is that sewage going to go? They haven't answered those questions. Where is the water going go?

Ten thousand tourists a day. Have the developers come up with a water or a sewage plan yet?

As far as I know and as far as Renae and all the groups involved in this fight know, they haven't put together any realistic plan to deal with the sewage. They're talking about possibly drilling into groundwater supplies at the site. As many people know, the Colorado River Basin is already very over allocated and so for the developers to come out and say, okay we're going to tap that groundwater is a serious concern for everybody involved and everybody in the area.

In the film, we don’t hear directly from any of the proposed developers. But we do hear the arguments for the project – and that has to do with the jobless rate and poverty on the Navajo Nation. Can you give us the case for building the Escalade?

Well, first of all, I requested many interviews with the developers, but they never got back to me. Those communities - Navajo communities and native communities in northern Arizona - have unemployment rates that are many, many times the national average. And, so there's the idea that the project would bring in some well paying jobs into the region. And, that's not incorrect. There would be a few well paying jobs, but most of the profits would go right back to the developers in Scottsdale.

Dan, how likely do you think it is the Escalade moves forward?

It seems pretty unlikely given that there's been so much criticism of it within the community. And, you know, until everybody in the community can kind of come together and say this is what we want, or this is not what we want, than it's going to be difficult for the developers to move forward in the project. So, I feel optimistic and certainly it's something we have to keep our eye on and not just declare victory and walk away from it. But, I feel pretty confident that at this point it won't go through.

In an email statement to KNAU, Confluence Partners, the developers of the Escalade Project, dispute many of the claims in Ferrara's interview and film. Specifically, they say the Navajo Nation will receive a share of any profits based on visitor levels.

With regard to water, the developers say they plan to supply the Escalade with new wells and a pipeline. The sewage, they say, would be dealt with by a permitted treatment facility.

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