A Grand Victory for Environmentalists
By Joseph Godio, Staff Contributor
Environmentalists and real estate developers continue to fight rigorously for their respective interests. Recently, the environmentalists won a battle, that if lost, would have had larger repercussions than most. On March 4, 2016, environmentalists everywhere won an important victory concerning development near the South Rim of one of the United States most recognizable natural wonders, the Grand Canyon. The U.S. Forest Service rejected a proposal to prepare the area for development by widening roads and building infrastructure. Though the end goal was a large-scale development, at this particular juncture the Forest Service rejected an easement. The Superintendent of the Grand Canyon National Park described the proposal as one of the greatest threats to the Grand Canyon in the 100-year history of the park.
The town of Tusayan, Arizona submitted the plan. The town is a community of about six hundred residents on the outskirts of the Grand Canyon National Park with some private land falling within a half-mile of the Park. Tusayan applied for three segments of road and utility easements that would intrude into and cross a total 5.7 miles of Kaibab National Forest.
If the easement were granted, the proposed development likely would have been significant. The easement would have permitted the developer to build approximately 2,100 new housing units near the south entrance of the Grand Canyon National Park. In addition to new homes on acreage of the South Rim, the proposed development planned to include 3 million square feet of commercial space including a spa, shops, restaurants, a conference center and hotels. Just as alarming, the proposed plan would have a significant impact on water resources and wildlife.
The proposal was not met without controversy. An opinion letter written to the Mayor of Tusayan from Forest Supervisor, Heather Provencio, outlined the process. The Forest Service began pursuant to 36 C.F.R. 251.54(g)(2), and evaluated the proposed use of National Forest Service lands to consider authorizing the use. The first step in this process is to notify the “potentially affected” Federal, State, and local government agencies and the public of the proposal and provide them with an opportunity to comment. From the environmentalists’ perspective, the response by the public was nothing short of outstanding. According to Ms. Provencio’s opinion letter the Forest Service received 2,477 unique comment letters, 85,693 form letters, 86 comments connected to a blog, and two petitions with 105,698 signatures attached on the project. More comments were forthcoming, after the close of the initial formal scoping period, over 35,000 additional comment letters were received by the Forest Service. The most crucial aspect of these letters is that the “vast majority” of the commenters opposed the Forest Service authorizing the proposed roads and infrastructure. Ms. Provencio stated,
“[b]ased on the comments received, and considering the other information I have regarding the proposed project, I have decided to reconsider application of the screening criteria to the proposal, as set forth under 36 CFR 251.54(e) , which provides that any proposal for use or occupancy of NFS land must meet all of 9 minimum requirements before the FS may consider processing an application for authorization”
Among other requirements, in order for a proposed project to be authorized by the National Forest Service the project “must be consistent, or can be made consistent, with the Kaibab Forest Plan.” The opinion letter rejected the plan because it did not meet the minimum requirements for initial screening. In response to the rejection, Eric Duthie, town manager of Tusayan stated that the decision “took the community and its development partners by surprise.” More importantly, Mr. Duthie stated “[t]he Forest Service made the decision unilaterally.” These comments by Mr. Duthie suggest that the town of Tusayan will be appealing the agency decision under the Administrative Procedures Act. On the opposite side of the issue, environmental groups praised the decision for protecting natural and water resources.
As the matter currently stands, the environmentalists have sustained a victory. However, how long this victory lasts is an issue that is yet to be resolved. In her opinion letter, Ms. Provencio said “I have determined that the Tusayan proposal is deeply controversial, is opposed by local and national communities, would stress local and park infrastructure, and have untold impacts to the surrounding tribal and national park lands.” If this matter is reversed on appeal, it has the potential to set a dangerous precedent that could have a detrimental impact on the protection of forest, tribal, and park lands for generations to come. However, environmentalist organizations will stand ready to fight for our natural resources, just as they have for generations.
 Laura Zuckerman, U.S. land managers reject development near Grand Canyon, Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-arizona-grandcanyon-idUSKCN0W62QU (last visited Mar. 5, 2016).
 Forest Service Rejects Project That Would Have Spelled Disaster for Grand Canyon, Earth Justice http://www.commondreams.org/newswire/2016/03/04/forest-service-rejects-project-would-have-spelled-disaster-grand-canyon (last visited Mar. 5, 2016).
 Brandon Loomis, Plan for 2,000 homes near south entrance of Grand Canyon rejected, AZ Central, http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/2016/03/04/plans-2000-homes-near-south-entrance-grand-canyon-rejected/81340688/ (last visited Mar. 5, 2016).
 Supra, Earth Justice at note 2
 Supra, Zuckerman at note 1.
 Supra Earth Justice at note 2.
 U.S. land managers reject development near Grand Canyon, CNBC http://www.cnbc.com/2016/03/04/reuters-america-us-land-managers-reject-development-near-grand-canyon.html (last visited Mar. 5, 2016); see also supra Earth Justice at note 2.
 Supra Earth Justice at note 2.
 U.S. Dep’t of Agriculture, Opinion Letter (Mar. 4, 2016).
 Supra Zukerman at note 1.
 Supra Opinion Letter at note 10.