At Grand Canyon skywalk, controversial twist on eco-tourism

The Hualapai Indians' glass horseshoe over the lip of the national treasure stirs awe – and ire.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Anita Wells shuffles cautiously up to the edge of the glass floor and then stops short. The view before her of the Grand Canyon thousands of feet below causes her to tremble. "Oh, I can't do this," she moans.

But Ms. Wells and her sons have arrived at 6:30 a.m. on this snow-flurried spring morning to be among the first tourists to step out onto the horseshoe-shaped bridge. And so, with her son Adam's prodding, Wells takes her first few steps gingerly. She feels a comforting sturdiness beneath her in the three-inch-thick glass. Then, minutes later, she's smiling and laughing at the far end of a structure cantilevering off the West Rim of the world's most famous chasm.

"I was really nervous about doing this, but my boys wanted to so I figured I should try something new," says Wells, who is on a road trip from Atlanta with her 21-year-old twins. "Once I got out there, I got used to it, and then it was kind of a charge to be doing this."

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Almost overnight, the glass-and-steel oxbow protruding out over the lip of the Grand Canyon has become one of the world's most unusual curiosities. Part high-wire act and part window into the womb of the Earth, the structure represents a new and controversial twist on the budding eco-tourism movement.

The Hualapai Indians, who consented to allow investors to build the $30 million Skywalk on their land, hope it draws thousands of visitors a year and brings a lift to their isolated reservation 120 miles southeast of Las Vegas. They're counting on it to create jobs and provide much-needed revenue for the 2,000 tribal members spread across 1 million acres of Arizona.

But critics, including some tribal members, consider it an affront to one of the world's most hallowed pieces of earth. "I'm not trying to denigrate their need, but this is designed to provide a thrill of being able to walk over the edge," says Robert Arnberger, a retired superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park. "I dislike the motivation behind it."

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The seat of the Hualapai reservation is 60 unpaved, extraordinarily sinuous miles away from the Skywalk in the town of Peach Springs. It is an outpost along Route 66 that bustled with traffic until Interstate 40 was built in 1960s. Today, like similar small towns on that much-traveled mid-century road, it's desolate, the last gas station abandoned within the past year. Trash is strewn along roadsides and in front of the small houses that line streets near the railroad tracks where freight trains shudder by several times an hour. The most opulent spot is the Hualapai Lodge, where visitors stay before they head out for rafting trips or other tours in the region.

While clearly not a prosperous place, debate swirls about the level of poverty on the reservation. The 2000 US Census put the average income for the 600 residents of Peach Springs at about $18,000 a year. It's important because people like Sheri YellowHawk, the chief executive officer of Grand Canyon West Corp., the arm of the Hualapai Tribal Council that manages tourism operations, argues that Skywalk and its accompanying development are necessary to prop up a flailing economy. Similarly, David Jin, a Las Vegas entrepreneur who is the lead investor in Skywalk, has long insisted that his main motive in building the walkway was not profit but "to help these poor people improve the way they live."

No one doubts the importance of tourism to the reservation. It accounts for 70 percent of the Hualapai Tribal Council's budget. Visits to the area has stagnated in recent years at 200,000 people annually – a fraction of the 4 million who flock to the US-owned south rim of the Grand Canyon.

With the latest development, the Hualapai believe they could finally mine real treasure from the vast swath of the Grand Canyon they control. The Skywalk, in fact, is just the most spectacular piece of a $45 million development plan on the reservation. Blueprints also call for a 6,000-square-foot visitors center, a vertical tram that will whisk people from the rim to the canyon floor, and more lodging. They will pave some of the washboard roads to make the trip to the glass menagerie seem like less of a Safari.

Something "had to be done for the future," says Ms. YellowHawk.

To boost tribal incomes, the first 30 Skywalk jobs were offered to Hualapai members, although not all could be filled because of educational deficiencies and other problems. Daniel Havatone says he didn't make the cut because he failed a drug test. Even so, he's enthusiastic about the development. "I hope it will attract more tourists and more people," he says. "That will help us."

Other tribal members are less enchanted. Many older Hualapai, in particular, consider their piece of the Grand Canyon holy and protest the project on those grounds. "They're mad and their hearts are hurting, but they don't talk about it anymore because it's such a hard thing for them," says Rhiannon Watahomigie.

Some outsiders bristle at commercializing such a sacred natural wonder in this way. What's next, they wonder, bungee jumping to the canyon floor? When he was superintendent of the Grand Canyon National Park, Mr. Arnberger says he heard all kinds of proposals to make money from the canyon: tramways, hot air balloon rides – even stringing bras from one side of the rim to the other to raise awareness for breast cancer. "I turned all of that down," says Arnberger. "The Grand Canyon deserves special care by everyone responsible for it."

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Admission is $50 to the Grand Canyon West region of the reservation and then another $25 for 15 minutes on the Skywalk. YellowHawk and Mr. Jin believe 2,000 people a day, or more than 600,000 people a year, will eventually visit the site. On this opening day to the public, the crowd is thinner – maybe 1,000 people – despite vast publicity surrounding the project.

Early visitors watched a trio of Hualapai elders shake gourds, chant tribal hymns, and cut the ribbon opening the Skywalk. Many then moved on to other sites. "There doesn't seem like there's that much of a line anymore," says Mike Cote of Chicago, who thinks the $75 cost for the Skywalk is too high. "There was such a rush to get people out here, and now it's sort of quiet."

YellowHawk is undeterred. She thinks tour operators will soon start including the Skywalk in their packages, and it will become a "must stop" for people visiting the Grand Canyon.

Future tourists will enter the Skywalk from the visitors center, which is expected to be completed by year's end. For now, they ascend a metal staircase and sit on benches to don hospital-style booties to protect the glass floor from scuffs. Most people, like Wells, seem tentative as they approach the place where the walkway becomes glass and the salmon abyss plunges below. Many admit feeling a sense of vertigo in their first steps. Once comfortable, some show confidence by jumping up and down. The floor doesn't quiver.

"Once you step out and the floor doesn't feel any different from other floors, you know you're safe and you can enjoy it," says Randy Holabird of Reno, Nevada.

The glass floor isn't seamless: It is laid out in huge square tiles with one-inch gaps between them. The glass wall railings along the Skywalk are only about five feet high, which can add to the sense of adventure and trepidation.

But none of this bothers Jayne Williams. "To me, I almost forgot that I was on top of all that space, and it was like looking at a picture window in the floor," says the Las Vegas resident.

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