Chasm of Debate on Grand Canyon Project
The first time developer Tom DePaolo expressed an interest in the Grand Canyon, he was proposing an outlet mall in this small hotel colony just a few miles from the park. That idea went nowhere.
Now he’s back, and critics say he has the same thing in mind--only on a much larger scale. DePaolo, meanwhile, says he’s trying to save a national treasure that people--5 million a year and climbing--are loving to death.
The U.S. Forest Service is considering DePaolo’s proposal to build Canyon Forest Village, a development seven miles south of the canyon rim that he says would help with the park’s major problems: a crush of cars, inadequate employee housing and too little room for basic services.
Some local leaders argue that DePaolo’s proposal would be more like Disneyland than something befitting the simple splendor of the Grand Canyon.
The Forest Service is expected to make a decision by spring. In addition, any development would require rezoning by the Coconino County Board of Supervisors.
There’s no disagreement that Grand Canyon National Park has big problems. On an average day, there are 2 1/2 cars for every parking space, services are strained and employees live in what the park superintendent describes as “decrepit, leaky, rotting trailers.”
DePaolo’s answer is a $500-million development including 3,650 hotel rooms, 250 campsites and 425,000 square feet of retail space--about equivalent to seven large department stores. It also would include employee housing and a park-and-ride center where visitors would link to a mass transit system planned for the park.
All at no expense to taxpayers.
The 672 acres where he wants to build Canyon Forest Village, right along the main highway into the park, are in the Kaibab National Forest and are the property of the Forest Service. To get it, he’s offering to trade 12 privately owned parcels--2,184 acres in all--elsewhere in the Kaibab forest.
Federal law allows such land exchanges only if the properties have near equal value.
DePaolo says Canyon Forest Village will be a “model gateway community.”
“The goal ought to be first and foremost to protect the park and to enhance the visitor experience,” he said at his Scottsdale office.
The loudest critics so far have their own financial interest in development near the canyon, while environmentalists generally have stayed on the sidelines.
Owners of Tusayan hotels and leaders of cities more than an hour away, where many canyon visitors stay, contend that DePaolo wants to build a colossal hotel-retail complex at their expense.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out [Canyon Forest Village] will have some negative impact on the local economies when you build all those hotel rooms,” said Rick Lopez, a Flagstaff city councilman and president of the group Say No to Canyon Forest Village.
Business owners in Tusayan, where there are about 1,000 hotel rooms already, say they could be overwhelmed by Canyon Forest Village. Leaders of Flagstaff and Williams, cities south of the canyon, are worried about losing businesses and tax revenue.
“Canyon Forest Village to me represents a quantum leap and a few steps for what’s needed,” said Williams Mayor James Hoffman, who regularly issues acidic news releases decrying the plan.
But Hoffman’s motives have been questioned. His wife’s family owns a campground and a one-third stake in a lodge in Tusayan.
Canyon Forest Village opponents, however, say DePaolo has the biggest conflicts on his side.
For example, the family of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is a partner in DePaolo’s plan, offering to trade several parcels to the Forest Service in exchange for rights to construct a campground and some hotel rooms in Canyon Forest Village.
Babbitt’s department does not oversee the Forest Service, but it does oversee Grand Canyon National Park, which is fueling the development drive and is cooperating in the study.
Babbitt was a lobbyist for the project before being appointed to the Cabinet. But Stephanie Hanna, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, says Babbitt has no financial interest in the outcome of Canyon Forest Village because he sold his stake in Babbitt Bros. before taking office.
In addition, opponents complain that four of the six consultants hired to study development plans for the area near the park once worked for Canyon Forest Village.
DePaolo chose most of the consultants used because he funded the study.
Conny Frisch, the superintendent of Kaibab National Forest, said none of the consultants has any financial interest in the outcome of the study. It is not usual for proponents to select the consultants when they pay for a government study, she said.
The study evaluated several alternatives for development near the canyon, including a scaled-down version of Canyon Forest Village, but didn’t endorse any plan.
Other options include having Tusayan-area residents build employee housing and a park-and-ride facility, having the federal government do the same, or simply doing nothing.
Regional forester Charles Cartwright in Albuquerque, N.M., will offer a preferred alternative after public comments are reviewed. The deadline for comments is Sept. 18.
Canyon Forest Village first surfaced after DePaolo unsuccessfully tried to get space to build an outlet mall near the canyon in the early 1990s. He stumbled across land-trade opportunities after several landowners rejected his outlet idea.
When the Forest Service began seriously considering the idea by conducting an impact study on Canyon Forest Village, the fight heated up. DePaolo and local leaders have been exchanging blows using press releases, heavy advertisements, dueling studies and motive attacks.
Lopez, the Flagstaff councilman, says that the study is mostly for show and that federal officials already have decided on DePaolo’s plan.
“All we’ve been doing so far is going through the motions for credibility,” he says.
Park Supt. Robert Arnberger angrily denies that.
“I have one thing to say to that--hogwash. It’s a sad day when two agencies join with one another to solve a problem, and it’s called a conspiracy.”
Opponents also say the study vastly underestimates how badly they will be hurt by Canyon Forest Village.
They cite a Northern Arizona University study commissioned by them, which says Flagstaff could lose more than $570 million a year if Canyon Forest Village is built as proposed.
Hoffman, the mayor of Williams, argues that Canyon Forest Village would have too many hotel rooms and would water down the market. Hotel occupancy is already falling in northern Arizona, he said.
“I don’t think anything else up there needs to be developed other than a transportation system and employee housing,” he said.
DePaolo argues that the hotel occupancy numbers are reasonable because many baby boomers are reaching retirement age, and retirees are frequent national park visitors.
“Tourism is only expected to grow because baby boomers are retiring, and they’re the demographic that goes to national parks. We’re planning for the 10- to 30-year future of the area,” DePaolo said.
So far, environmental groups have remained relatively quiet about the alternatives, which may be in part because DePaolo has heavily promoted Canyon Forest Village as a model environment-friendly community.
Brad Ack of the conservation group Grand Canyon Trust says his group prefers DePaolo’s plan to the others for its environmentally conscious design. But, he says, its “size and scale are way out of bounds.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Designs on the Grand Canyon
The U.S. Forest Service is evaluating five alternatives to address problems at Grand Canyon National Park:
Alternative A: No action.
Alternative B: Canyon Forest Village. Canyon Forest Village partners would trade 2,184 acres inside Kaibab National Forest for 672 acres between Tusayan and the Grand Canyon. On the land, they would construct employee housing along with 3,650 hotel rooms, 250 campsites and 425,000 square feet of retail space. They would build an education-orientation center for the Grand Canyon attached to a mass transit hub and parking lot.
Alternative C: Scaled-back Canyon Forest Village. Canyon Forest Village partners would trade 2,184 acres for 380 acres between Tusayan and the Grand Canyon. They would construct employee housing along with 2,000 hotel rooms, 250 campsites and 304,000 square feet of retail space. An education-orientation center would be constructed adjoining a mass transit hub.
Alternative D: Plan backed by area cities and Tusayan businesses. Would create a special taxing district to buy 65 acres of Forest Service land for construction of an education-orientation center and employee housing.
Alternative E: The federal government would build its own employee housing and mass transit hub on Forest Service land. About 5,400 square feet of retail space would be available.
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