Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
Voters in tiny Tusayan, Arizona, will soon have their say on a proposed megaproject near the Grand Canyon.
The border of a national park is just like any other jurisdictional boundary: what happens on the other side of that line can be worlds different than the natural beauty within the park. This typically isn’t a huge problem, as most developers would much rather avoid the sort of vociferous opposition that would undoubtedly come with building say, a car dealership on the border of Yosemite. Thankfully, the areas outside of national parks aren’t usually very good sites for such projects. But when a site right outside a major national park is seemingly a good place to build, the lines get fuzzy.
Developers hope to build nearly 3 million square feet of hotels, resorts, stores and homes in Tusayan, Arizona, a couple miles beyond the edge of Grand Canyon National Park. The area is a prime location for commercial development, with millions of people driving through on their way to see the canyon every year. But the prospect of a megadevelopment rising so close to an area revered for its natural beauty has many locals upset, as The New York Times recently reported:
The tug-of-war over the development, which has been going on for two decades, has brought together business executives and builders, conservationists, the National Park Service, Indian tribes, area residents and others. Their debates — fueled by high-powered lawyers and lobbyists — have led to accusations of election fraud, slum lording, conflicts of interest and plain old greed, a kind of small-town politics on steroids that have cleaved the nearly 600 residents.
In the coming weeks, voters in this once-peaceful town will get a chance to have their say yet again — and perhaps for good. In March, votes will be tallied in a recall election for three of the five seats on the Town Council, all of which have been occupied by supporters of the developers.
In May, the zoning plans that the council signed off on to enable the project will come up for a townwide vote.
Much of the opposition centers around the small town’s limited infrastructure and water resources. And of course there’s also the more political and emotional issue of the development’s compatibility with the nearby Grand Canyon, named one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Neighboring the majesty of millions of years of geological history with something like a Bed Bath & Beyond just feels wrong. The developers have apparently abandoned plans to include a roller coaster in the project. And sure, tourists burn through gallons of gasoline and emit tons of greenhouse gases to get to the edge of the canyon, but do they really need to stop at a shopping mall right before or after or both?
The developers think so. And they’re not the only ones who have seen an opportunity to get a piece of the captured audience driving to and then away from a natural amenity like the Grand Canyon.
The Gatlinburg Mountain Mall, for example, has more than 30 shops and boasts being “just minutes” from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. And just about 5 miles from the park is Dollywood, a theme park co-owned by the country singer Dolly Parton, where visitors can ride down Daredevil Falls and tour the Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame. And if the kids aren’t worn out from watersliding at Dollywood’s Splash Country, they might be able to head into Great Smoky Mountains National Park to look for black bear and elk while hiking some of the 800 miles of trails.
At more than 800 square miles, it’s hard not to see some sort of development around the park’s edges. But it’s also hard to picture a smooth transition between a forest and a waterslide park.
Local amenities – natural or otherwise – are what help make a place unique. For certain business interests to try to link their own commercial projects to already proven tourist sites is good business. For the town of Tusayan outside the Grand Canyon, it makes sense to cater to and economically benefit from the crowds coming through to visit the park. But a commercial project like the one proposed is so different from what lies within the borders of the nearby national park that it creates the desire for more of a buffer between the places we’ve designated as naturally important and those we’ve manufactured for financial means.