Once word gets out about some particularly beautiful or unusual place, the beauty or uniqueness is doomed as we crowd in and stampede it to death, or worse – try to slice it up into individually-owned bits. We admire a thing, then ruin it with our meddling or by our very mass.
It never fails. Mount Everest was pristine when Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquered it in 1953; today, it is the “world’s highest garbage dump,” littered with food containers, shredded tents, oxygen bottles, and the occasional dead body. Yosemite National Park is literally being trampled by too much traffic and too many visitors who leave behind too much trash. Machu Picchu’s 500-year-old ruins are eroding away under the hiking boots of too many tourists, prompting concern by Peru’s government. Indeed, UNESCO lists 46 World Heritage Sites — 20 of them natural settings — as “endangered,” and an awful lot of the destruction is purely due to the stampede of human tourists or human property development. On a more common note, take any number of beaches where miles of sand and sea are blocked and overshadowed by high-rise resort hotels, each carving out their little piece of waterfront access. In my own neighborhood, I have often wondered at the attitude of local park-goers who want to spend a day with nature, hiking the forest trails, only to hurl entire bags of garbage out their car windows along the park access road. Ironically, a lot of the garbage consists of bottles or wrappers with brand names like “Deer Park” or “Nature Valley.”
Well, the next UNESCO-designated natural gem under threat of crass human development is the Grand Canyon, believe it or not. As Kevin Fedarko writes for the New York Times, there are two development projects looming in the near future which threaten the visual landscape, the environment, and even water availability.
The first is the enormous expansion of the very small town of Tusayan, Arizona, adding some 2200 homes, shops, hotels, a spa and a dude ranch. This level of development would deplete the aquifer that feeds “delicate oases with names like Elves Chasm and Mystic Spring. These pockets of life, tucked amid a searing expanse of bare rock, are among the park’s most exquisite gems,” writes Fedarko.
The other project is a plan to install a cable car system, the “Escalade,” at the very heart of the Canyon, the Confluence, exactly where the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers meet. This system would occupy some 420 acres and haul 4,000 tourists per day to the bottom of the canyon, where they would find a restaurant, elevated walkway, art galleries and shops, and an amphitheater employing a total of some 2000 staff, and all of the attendant detritus that comes with that level of human presence. Sadly, the leaders of the Navajo Nation – who one might think would be more concerned with safeguarding the Canyon’s natural beauty – are part of the problem, working with the developer to construct the tramway at the western edge of the Navajo Nation.
Some might think of this as “access.” I call it “destroying the experience you wanted in the first place.” As Fedarko reports, there is plenty of access to the Canyon without having to hike or ride a mule the more than one vertical mile to the bottom: there are rafting trips, boats, planes and helicopters for different views and easier access.
Fedarko says it better than I can, so I encourage you to go read his article (especially the parts about just how these deals with the Devil came about in the first place, which should never even have been possible). Meanwhile, here are his words which reflect perfectly why I think the Canyon should NOT be too accessible, and a lot of it is only indirectly related to the trammeling of the masses:
Although it is not the first, nor the largest, nor the most popular of America’s national parks, the Grand Canyon is nevertheless regarded as the touchstone and the centerpiece of the entire system. And rightly so. Because nowhere else has nature provided a more graphic display of its titanic indifference to the works and aspirations of man. The walls of the abyss comprise at least 20 separate layers of stone that penetrate more than a mile beneath the rim. The bloodlines of that rock extend 17 million centuries into the past — more than a third of the planet’s life span, and about one-tenth the age of the universe itself. Beneath those towering ramparts of unimaginably ancient rock, visitors are reminded that regardless of how impressive our achievements may seem, we are tiny and irrelevant in relation to the forces that have shaped the cosmos… That message may carry a special relevance to us as Americans, if only because we tend to be so impressed with our own noise. The canyon has things to say that we need to hear. It should therefore stand as axiomatic that the insights imparted by a journey into the abyss would be radically diminished, if not entirely negated, by making the trip inside a gondola. In essence, what Mr. Whitmer’s plan would amount to is the annulment of a space whose value resides not in its accessibility to the masses, but precisely the reverse.
On their website, the Escalade developers point out other facilities along the Grand Canyon, such as “Phantom Ranch” near the confluence of the Colorado River and Bright Angel Creek, and they ask: are these existing facilities a blight on the Canyon? The implication is that if these things exist, then they should be allowed their development, too. I disagree. I think the existing facilities ARE something of a blight on the Canyon, including the famous Skywalk. The existence of man-made structures marring the landscape does not justify MORE man-made structures to mar the landscape even further. If we are to preserve anything at all of our wild places, we need to refrain from building ever more facilities that not only alter the natural landscape, but also attract ever larger and more thoughtless crowds.