National forestland planned near Grand Canyon park

Environmentalists hail idea as model for future

August 06, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

DENVER -- After years of analysis and pitched debate, federal officials are planning to announce today an ambitious plan to develop national forestland beside Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona that environmentalists are calling a model for future development around national parks.

The proposal, to create Canyon Forest Village on 272 acres at the south entrance of the park in the town of Tusayan, represents a compromise that appears to have something for everyone, making it a rare example of cooperation between two forces -- environmentalists and developers -- who rarely agree on anything in the West.

The village would include housing for park employees, hotels, restaurants and other amenities for local residents and the millions of tourists who visit every year. A key element favored by environmentalists was a decision to transport water for the facilities from the Colorado River rather than from within the canyon.

"Once completed, this will raise the bar for development next to national parks and be a model for other situations," said Dave Simon, the southwest regional director of the National Parks and Conservation Association, a nonprofit group that worked with other environmental groups to develop the plan, known as Alternative H, that the U.S. Forest Service is expected to endorse.

Spokeswomen for the Grand Canyon National Park and the Forest Service said details of the project will be revealed at a news conference this morning in Flagstaff, Ariz.

But environmentalists and associates of the development group's general partner, Thomas DePaolo of Scottsdale, said yesterday that the Forest Service had agreed on a plan that was supported by at least nine leading environmental groups, Arizona's native tribes and various state agencies.

While the final plan includes more development than some of the other eight originally under consideration, environmentalists were won over by the water program and other ecological concessions that they contend would protect the Grand Canyon.

Under terms of the proposal, water for Canyon Forest Village would be brought by rail and pipeline from the Colorado River at the Arizona-California border. In a runner-up proposal, water would have been used from wells and springs inside the Grand Canyon.

The environmental groups also prevailed in pressing for the use of efficient energy systems and for recycling programs.

"We were blessed to find representatives of national environmental groups who recognized the challenges, and they were willing to negotiate from the beginning," DePaolo said in an interview, acknowledging the unusual collaboration.

He praised the environmental groups who helped shape the final proposal calling them "as much a developer of this project as we are."

Federal officials began contemplating the need for an expanded gateway community at the Grand Canyon's busiest entrance more than a decade ago. By last year, more than 4.5 million people visited the Grand Canyon, making it the country's second-most popular national park or preservation area after the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee. About 80 percent of visitors to Grand Canyon enter from Tusayan.

But Tusayan, an unincorporated town of fewer than 1,000 year-round residents in the Kaibab National Forest, could accommodate neither the growing number of visitors to the Grand Canyon nor the park's own pressing needs of 500 housing units for its expanding work force and concessionaires.

As a result, park officials drew up a management plan in 1995 that sought to eliminate problems through the expansion of Tusayan and construction of light-rail service from Tusayan into the park to reduce pollution from automobile traffic, another growing problem.

The expansion was only made possible by the land swap. Tucked away within the 1.6 million square miles of the Kaibab forest were 12 parcels of land, about 2,200 acres combined, that were privately held since the homesteading days of the 1800s.

DePaolo bought the first parcel with the idea of building a resort hotel. In discussions with the forest service about improvements to roads, he learned of the bureau's interest in swapping private land for Tusayan acreage. Bureau officials, he said, encouraged him to pool his resources with residents of the town who were already investigating the possibilities.

After a year of meetings, DePaolo and his partners set out on their own, buying up 11 additional parcels by 1995, the dozen costing about $5 million, he said.

Pub Date: 8/06/99

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