Tribe’s SKYWALK

                                 is lofty attempt to attract tourists.

                                                                                                      By: Jane Clark


Grand Canyon Skywalk

An elderly spiritual leader shook a gourd rattle and sang prayers as dozens of news crews, some from as far away as Korea, jockeyed for position behind a cordon of yellow caution tape Wednesday, March 9th, 2007

They were there to watch a 2-million-pound deck being inched into position off a limestone cliff 4,000 feet above the Grand Canyon floor.

The glass-bottomed, horseshoe-shaped deck juts almost 70 feet from the canyon’s rim. When it opens March 28, 2007, it will give visitors, for a $25 fee, the new sensation of being suspended amid the canyon’s towering red rock walls above a faint sliver of Colorado River flowing far below.

The Skywalk is on the Hualapai (WALL-a-pie) Indian Reservation on the canyon’s western rim, 120 miles east of Las Vegas and 250 miles west of Grand Canyon National Park’s main entrance, where most visitor enterprises are clustered. The floating deck is the latest commercial enterprise attempted by an impoverished tribe that, unlike many other Native American groups, is betting on tourism rather than casino gaming for economic salvation.

Half of the 1,500 residents on the Hualapai reservation are unemployed, and about 30% live below the poverty level. The tribe al ready draws more than 300,000 visitors a year to what is marketed as Grand Canyon West, offering helicopter sightseeing flights, rafting and pontoon boat rides, an Indian village and a replica Old West town.

Tribal officials believe the Skywalk will double visitation in the first year alone. Still, the $30 million project is not without critics, who liken it to imposing an amusement-park attraction on a natural wonder. But Sheri Yellowhawk, head of the tribe’s business enterprises, counters that not only will the Skywalk create jobs, but it also will foster cultural exchange. At present, two  thirds of visitors to Grand Canyon West are on quick packaged day trips from Las Vegas.

“We’re not building a power plant. This isn’t a ride. Nobody’s swinging around,” she says. “We’re building a natural way to view the canyon.”

Skywalk’s official opening is March 20, 2007, when moon-walking astronaut Buzz AIdrin will lead an invitation-orily group onto the platform. But critical infrastructure is far from complete. Reliable water and power sources for this isolated high-desert area remain sketchy A 14-mile stretch of road into the tourist area is unpaved. Construction of a visitors center, restaurant and museum that will frame the Skywalk entrance hasn’t begun.

And only time will tell whether the endeavor is folly or genius. Not surprisingly, Bill Karren of Lochsa Engineering, the firm overseeing construction, takes the latter view  “It’s bold,” he says as workers use a pulley and cable system to very slowly nudge the peach-colored Skywalk out from the cliff. “My firm is in Las Vegas, so we’re used to doing weird stuff. But this takes the cake.”

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