Grand Canyon's plan to stay grand will echo across US

At first glance, this enclave of gas stations, restaurants, shops, and motels seems uncomplicated enough. Surrounded by pristine national forest, it has become a familiar last stop for the 5 million annual visitors who enter Grand Canyon National Park just seven miles north.

But beneath the surface calm is a clash of people, politics, and values that may redefine how the National Park Service deals with development on the edge of parklands across the US. In addressing overcrowding, the question is how to improve access for a soaring number of visitors that could double by 2010 - without further choking roads and trails or sullying an outdoor crown jewel.

"America's National Park system is at a major crossroads in how to deal with problems of congestion," says Dave Simon, Southwest regional director for the National Parks and Conservation Association, an environmental watchdog group.

To relieve the perpetual traffic jam of tourists, Grand Canyon National Park is looking to set up a form of mass transit. Last year, the second-most visited park announced a $14 million light-rail line that will carry as many as 4,000 people an hour from here to a visitor center on the South Rim. It would be the first such system installed at a US park, although similar solutions have been proposed at Yosemite National Park in California and Zion National Park in Utah.

But while that may help relieve congestion at the canyon itself, park officials are also exploring options to help house visitors and their cars - as well as provide additional housing for park employees. A multiagency task force has been weighing eight different proposals that balance development, tourism, and environmental concerns. The final decision - expected by June - could be the prototype for gateway communities for national parks coast to coast.

"This could be a model for the entire national park system and for parks internationally," says Charles Clusen, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, part of an environmental coalition that supports a public-private partnership at Tusayan. "How they decide to develop the Tusayan region could raise or lower the bar in defining what other parks can or will aim for."

Using rail to reach canyon

Under the three plans favored by locals, Tusayan would serve as a connecting point for motorists who park, shop, and board outside the park, using the rail line to access various destinations within the park. At issue is how much new development to allow.

"The local business owners are saying, 'We can provide everything the park needs without a big new development,' " says Kathie Schmidlin, spokeswoman for Kaibab National Forest, which is participating in the study. "Developers are saying, 'We will provide extra amenities from schools to fire stations to health clinics.' We are trying to weigh the balance."

This year's decision will mark the end of a five-year process. Observers say the key concerns encapsulate an issue confronting dozens of communities across the Mountain West: how to balance development, tourism, and environment - in this case, water.

"These are the same issues confronting towns all over the west," says Ms. Schmidlin. "That has made it a very long and complicated process."

In a recent public-comment period, more than 80 percent of respondents favored one plan, known as Alternative H. The plan has attracted attention nationwide because it involves a land exchange by developers of nearly 2,200 acres adjacent to the park for about 270 acres adjacent to Tusayan. Developers plan to build visitor services, fire and police substations, and a medical center as well as provide educational and employment opportunities for native Americans.

"This is very attractive to us because it removes the threat of development from several other parcels of land near Grand Canyon, and centers what is needed in just one spot," says Brad Ack, spokesman for Grand Canyon Trust. Nine national environmental groups favor this choice, including the NRDC, Environmental Defense Fund, The Wilderness Society, and National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"We feel the choice is really between a master-planned development that sets a new standard next to national parks, or a continuation of the haphazard clutter that exists now," says Simon, noting a list of environmentally friendly features that include solar power, recycled building materials, biological wastewater treatment, and a plan to import water. "This is the best alternative to solve both the park's and community problems."

But local businesspeople disagree. They are concerned new development next to the canyon will siphon tourist business away. They also do not believe assurances that the new development would use imported water rather than draining aquifers that sustain life in the canyon.

"We believe that projections about the negligible impact on Flagstaff and Williams businesses are grossly misleading," says Norm Wallen, a city councilman in Flagstaff, which has passed a resolution opposing the plan. "We do not believe their promises to not mine groundwater."

Economic implications

Whatever the final choice, the local economic implications could be enormous. A study by the grass-roots organization Coalition for the Canyon's Future recently released a study showing that the larger alternatives for Tusayan will increase economic activity in northern Arizona by $1.4 billion in its first five years.

But park officials say the overriding concern will not be local economics but rather improved facilities and access to the Grand Canyon. Consumer Reports recently ranked the park among the worst national parks to visit, and officials say they doubt Congress will appropriate enough extra funds to pay for $325 million in improvements needed to meet the park's master plan.

"We are trying to figure out the best balance of amenities and access to all our parks without sacrificing quality or the environment," says Cindy Daly, National Park Service spokeswoman.

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