The push and pull of economic development, energy production, tourism and resource protection around the Grand Canyon was the theme connecting much of the top environmental news of 2017.

In a decision that would have both environmental and economic ripple effects, the owners of the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station near Page announced in February they would end their stake in the facility at the end of 2019.

Economics drove the decision, the owners said, as natural gas and renewable energy have become cheaper than coal-fired power. Although the plant owners are planning for plant decommissioning at the end of 2019, the Navajo Nation and Peabody Energy, which owns the coal mine that supplies the plant, are still working to find a new owner that would keep the facility going.

Revenues from the power plant and the coal mine make up 30 percent of the Navajo Nation’s budget and 85 percent of the Hopi Tribe’s budget, according to the AP. An NAU analysis found the plant pumps $51 million into Page’s economy and accounts for $6.3 million in property taxes and contributions to special districts in Coconino County as well as the county general fund.

While facing a loss of power plant-related jobs and revenues, the Navajo Nation Tribal Council voted against another major tourism development that promoters said would help replace fossil fuel-related revenues. The Grand Canyon Escalade plan included hotels, stores and a gondola that would shuttle visitors from Navajo land on the Grand Canyon's rim to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. The tribe would have received a portion of annual revenues but would have had to put up $65 million to put in infrastructure at the site. The tribal council voted against the project 16-2.

Confluence Partners
An artist's rendering of the tramway descending to the confluence in the Escalade project.

Expanded development near the Grand Canyon got shut down again on Election Day when voters in Tusayan, just outside the park's South Rim entrance, defeated a ballot measure to increase building heights. The referendum would have increased the maximum building height in town to 65 feet, up from a current limit of between 35 feet and 40 feet.

In other Grand Canyon news:

  • Environmental groups cheered a U.S. appeals court decision in December that upheld a 20-year ban on new uranium mining around the Grand Canyon, though on the same day the court released a decision allowing operations to continue at a grandfathered uranium mine on the South Rim. Revising the Grand Canyon mining withdrawal also was among a list of recommendations released by the Forest Service in November in response to an executive order by President Trump related to the development of domestic energy resources. 
  • Environmental groups were hoping President Obama would declare a monument on 1.7 million acres north and south of the Grand Canyon, which would prohibit new mining claims in the area, but the president decided against such a declaration before he left office.
EcoFlight
On Tuesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to the Canyon Uranium Mine, located near the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The same day, the court upheld an Obama-era ban on new mining claims around the Grand Canyon. 
  • Facing the prospect of uranium ore being hauled through Flagstaff to a processing mill in Utah, the Flagstaff City Council approved a resolution officially opposing the transport of uranium ore and other radioactive materials through the city and neighboring communities.
  • Concerns about the treatment of pack horses owned by members of the Havasupai Tribe were revived after the arrest of a second tribal member in two years on animal cruelty charges related to one of his horses. 
  • The National Park Service released a plan to use nonlethal capture and removal as well as lethal shooting by trained volunteers to reduce the ballooning bison population that is damaging park resources on the North Rim.

FOREST FIRES, THINNING

  • Kendrick Mountain was ablaze during the month of June as the Boundary Fire burned through more than 17,700 acres and more than $9 million in federal cash. The Forest Service allowed the fire to burn in some places to ensure firefighter safety and clear out forest fuels. Smoke from the fire closed Highway 180 for several days and also led to poor air quality in places as far away as Cameron, Tuba City and Doney Park.
Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun
Firefighters are surrounded by low-intensity fire as they work on a back-burn operation near the Boundary Fire's containment lines at the base of Kendrick Mountain in June, 2017.
  • Mechanical thinning operations related to the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project began in forests around the Dry Lake Hills, requiring the closure of several trails.
  • The Four Forest Restoration Initiative continued to fall far short of its 50,000 acres-per-year tree thinning goal in 2017. In an effort to kickstart the logging work, the Forest Service promised a new large-scale contract. New managers also took over the struggling company that holds the first large-scale 4FRI contract with hopes of getting its work on track. 

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

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