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.
Grand Canyon West, Ariz.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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."
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.