In Florida and the Grand Canyon, a kindred war on development

Consider this: 12 members of our species have walked on the surface of the moon — only 10 have walked the whole Grand Canyon

Orlando Sentinel by Diane Roberts, guest columnist

October 6, 2017

Humans are drawn to beauty: cloud-piercing mountains and galloping rivers, dim, reverent forests and islands set in turquoise seas. Yet we can’t figure out how to experience nature without ruining it. In Florida, roads and houses invade our pristine places: We name subdivisions after whatever flora and fauna were destroyed to build it — Deer Run, Cypress Cove — and we stress our aquifer more and more every year to provide water for all those people longing to live in “paradise.”

The same thing is happening even in places so iconic, so beloved, you’d think they’d be impervious to the depredations of development. The Grand Canyon, one of the greatest of our national parks, is under attack. “The canyon provokes two major reactions,” says writer and explorer Kevin Fedarko, “the urge to protect it and the temptation to make a whopping pile of money from it.”

Fedarko, an award-winning author, a journalist and an outdoorsman with a graduate degree in Russian history from Oxford University, recently hiked the nearly 800 miles of the Grand Canyon along with National Geographic photographer Pete McBride. Temperatures sometimes rose to 111 degrees Fahrenheit; other times, it snowed. To understand the magnitude of their feat, consider this: 12 members of our species have walked on the surface of the moon — only 10 have walked the whole Grand Canyon.

Fedarko, who will speak at the Orlando Museum of Art on Oct. 11, undertook this epic journey along the ledges and through the tributary canyons of this mightiest of American wonders to document the ways it’s endangered. State officials in Arizona and Utah have asked the Trump administration to relax the environmental rules on uranium mining ordered by President Barack Obama — never-mind that the water supply on nearby Navajo reservations is so polluted it has been linked to cancer and kidney failure.

A development project at Tusayan, Ariz., would transform a canyon village with a handful of motels into a behemoth of a resort, with a spa, millions of square feet of commercial space, and a dude ranch. And some Scottsdale, Ariz., business people want to build a tramway to transport as many as 10,000 visitors a day from the canyon rim to a spot overlooking the confluence of the Colorado River and the Little Colorado, where they plan to erect an amphitheater, shops and a food court.

It’s not as if the canyon is inaccessible. There are places, Fedarko points out, where you can drive your car, ride a bike or a mule or a bus and get out at the edge of the Colorado. But, as Floridians know (think of Gov. Rick Scott’s one-time plans to build infrastructure in some of our most sensitive parks), the claim is always that they just want to help more of us enjoy the place.

“The reason we set up national parks and declared them indivisible and sacrosanct,” says Fedarko, “was because there were so many people who wanted to monetize them.”

Indeed, as Fedarko points out, Teddy Roosevelt’s famous 1903 Grand Canyon Speech when he exhorted, “Leave it as it is. Man cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it,” was aimed at the timber barons, mining magnates and on-the-make politicians, who looked at any landscape, no matter how majestic, in terms of potential profits.

In Florida, we’re locked in a long game of ecological whack-a-mole: In the late 1960s, Nathaniel Reed and other Florida conservationists stopped an international airport that was supposed to be built in the middle of Big Cypress Swamp. But ever since, it’s been a constant battle against dredging, draining and paving.

“The national parks are one of our best ideas,” Fedarko says, “a selfless act, in which we require each generation to commit themselves anew … forgoing our ability to make money now in favor of preserving the park for our children and grandchildren. And the Grand Canyon — it’s embedded in our DNA. It’s our crown jewel.” [READ MORE]

Diane Roberts is the author of four books and a professor at Florida State University.

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