After months of winding its way through legislative committees where it received scant support from tribal lawmakers, a bill that would allow for a major tourism development on the Grand Canyon’s east rim could go before the Navajo Nation Council in October.

The legislation would withdraw Navajo land for the development of the Grand Canyon Escalade project that includes a gondola tramway to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers as well as motels, restaurants and a Navajoland Discover Center on the canyon rim.

Since it was introduced in August 2016, the legislation has been considered by four committees of council delegates, three of which voted it down. The other one tabled the bill.

Those votes have no bearing on the bill’s fate before the entire council.

Some were expecting the legislation to be considered by council at its summer session last month, but in the end it was not included in the final agenda. Now, the bill's supporters are looking for it to be heard at the council’s fall session, which begins the third week in October.

In the interim, the bill’s sponsor is floating the idea of a negotiating team that would work with project developer Confluence Partners LLC to make changes to the legislation’s master agreement before it goes to council.

Confluence Partners’ Lamar Whitmer said his group would be open to such negotiations. In his view, Whitmer said lingering issues on the bill come down to the $65 million the tribe would be required to invest in roads and utilities to the Escalade site and a noncompete clause that prohibits the tribe from authorizing or establishing competing businesses near the Escalade project and its access road.

For the Escalade's opponents, the idea of any sort of negotiations on the project is a nonstarter, said Renae Yellowhorse, with the group Save the Confluence.

“There is no room to negotiate especially for people in that area,” Yellowhorse said. “Even if they are asked, they will sit on there, but it will be no project. Not there, not here, not anywhere."

She said that at this point her group is confident the Escalade legislation will get voted down if it goes to a vote of the full council in October.

“We just have to keep on the people who vote no and hope they don't change their mind,” she said.

Because of certain provisions in the bill, it requires a two-thirds vote of the council’s 24 delegates to pass. President Russell Begaye has said he opposes the Escalade project, so a two-thirds vote would also be required to pass the legislation if Begaye vetoes the bill.

It appears even the creation of the negotiating team could be contentious as well. Tom Platero, with the Navajo Nation Office of Legislative Services said it would take separate legislation to create a subcommittee or task force that would begin negotiations with Confluence Partners.

Whitmer, however, said he would only support an ad-hoc committee and not one established via legislation.

“The council people I've spoken with indicated they want something done within the next few months, so legislation, going through that legislative process to get a negotiating team, we're not supportive of that. That's silly,” Whitmer said.

He also said that any modification to the $65 million investment required of the Navajo Nation could affect the cut of gross revenues Confluence Partners would be willing to pass along to the tribe.

"If the $65 million is on the table, well then the revenue splits have to be on the table," Whitmer said.

Council Delegate Ben Bennett, who is the sponsor of the Escalade legislation and was reported by the Gallup Independent to have brought up the concept of a negotiating team, did not respond to requests for comment on this article.

Over the past 11 months, Bennett’s bill has been repeatedly pulled from committee agendas, frustrating Escalade opponents that try to attend hearings and rally support for their cause.

“They are testing our resilience,” said William Longreed, with Save the Confluence.

The bill does have a deadline, though. It must receive a vote by the current council before December 2018, otherwise it must be reintroduced to the next council and go back to the beginning of the legislative process.

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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