Is commercialization ruining Grand Canyon’s south rim?

We visited the Grand Canyon’s south rim in early October along with another couple from Ohio.

We took the Grand Canyon Railway from Williams, Arizona, to the rim. I always recommend the railway’s “package” deal to anyone planning to visit Grand Canyon. It is a good value since most meals and all overnights are included with the train trip. The accompanying guided bus tour is educational and leaves time for exploring the canyon on your own.

We’ve been to the canyon’s north and west rims in recent years, but it’s been 15 years since we traveled to the heavily visited south side – home to the National Park.

Boy, have things changed there!

We found the expanse of the mile-deep canyon and the meandering Colorado River at the bottom as glorious as ever and something every American should see. But some other sights left me stunned.

Everything is much more commercial at the south rim these days.

Bike trails and bike rentals are everywhere. I don’t remember seeing so many cyclists 15 years ago. They are competing for road space with growing numbers of tour buses and shuttles that circulate on the rim roads.

All the historic buildings like Kolb Studio and Hopi House, both designed by Mary Jane Colter in the 1930s, seem to be more souvenir shops than showcases for displaying local art and ancient artifacts.

And commercialization may get worse.

About 5 million people – many of them foreigners – visit this great natural wonder annually. Visitation has been on the increase since the 1960s for a number of reasons, including more convenient access by road and river.

A much-publicized rafting trip through the canyon by Sen. Robert Kennedy’s family in 1967 increased awareness of the area and tripled the number of visitors in just a year.

National Geographic reported in April 2015 visitation to the south rim stands to grow even more if a group of Navajos (and their investors) are allowed to build a tramway from a point just east of the south rim village to the canyon floor where the Little Colorado River flows into the Colorado.

The area lies within the Navajo reservation and has seen little development. That’s because the Navajo value their language and culture and protect it from outside intrusion. As a result, the Navajo are poor compared to some other Southwest tribes.

Maybe they’ve grown tired of poverty. Confluence Partners, which includes some Navajo leaders and developer R. Lamar Whitmer, want to build not only the tramway, but a hotel, dude ranch and spa at the rim and a restaurant and walkway on the canyon floor.

Many Navajos are opposed. In mid-October, the tribe’s law enforcement committee rejected the proposal. But the developers are not giving up, despite opposition from environmental groups and the National Park Service.

Our tour guide said air and water quality in the canyon is growing worse and affecting the California condors that nest on the steep walls. Adding more attractions will only acerbate that problem.

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