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Looking glass

The Hualapai tribe plans a skywalk, to the chagrin of Grand Canyon purists.

September 28, 2004|Daniel Kraker | Special to The Times

Tourists could soon be traipsing over the Grand Canyon on a glass sky deck built by American Indians descended from the geologic wonder's original inhabitants.

Slated for completion next spring, the 130-foot horseshoe-shaped skywalk will protrude 60 feet from the canyon's west rim. The Hualapai (WALL-ah-pie) tribe is betting that people will make the 2 1/2 -hour drive from Las Vegas for the chance to gaze 3,000 feet down to the ruddy Colorado River through the structure's clear floor.

"It's something you can't get any place else in the world," says Sheri Yellowhawk, chief executive of the Hualapai tribe's Grand Canyon Resort Corp.

The 1,500-member tribe shares a 108-mile border with the national park, but sovereignty allows it to use its 1-million-acre reservation in ways the federal government forbids elsewhere in the Grand Canyon.

In 1999, the tribe hosted daredevil Robbie Knievel's motorcycle jump across the canyon. Visitors dangle toes off ledges unimpeded by guardrails. They drive the only road snaking to the canyon bottom. They ride motorized pontoon boats up and down the river. And the tribe has exclusive rights to fly tourists below the canyon rim in helicopters. This relative carte blanche frustrates environmentalists and many park users. River guides, for instance, complain that people fly to the reservation, raft for a day and return to Las Vegas' Strip in time for a late show -- avoiding waiting lists and National Park Service restrictions to protect the fragile river environment.

"This is a fascinating view of what can be done to exploit a national treasure for a short-term tourist dollar," says Tom Martin, codirector of River Runners for Wilderness. "It's a theme park, not a national park."

The sky bridge will only make matters worse, many argue. "If someone proposed such a thing on national parkland in the Grand Canyon, it would be way over the top," says Wilderness Society spokesman Jay Watson. "It's certainly inconsistent with the rest of the Grand Canyon. Maybe the tribe will think twice before they build it."

But tribal leaders say that Grand Canyon National Park's hotels, roads and 4 million annual visitors do more damage to the environment than the Hualapai tourist attractions. Tourism, says tribal Chairman Charlie Vaughn, brings the promise of prosperity. Each year, about 220,000 people visit the tribe's Grand Canyon West complex -- a hotel, gift shop, airfield and picnic area serving barbecue lunch. Visits could triple, he says, once the tribe paves the last 14-mile stretch between the center and Las Vegas.

Future plans guaranteed to lure tourists and offend park purists include an electric tram running from the rim to the canyon floor.

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