A Deep Trust

At the Grand Canyon rim, a passionate—but pragmatic—nonprofit is on guard

Since 2007, Boulder City resident Tony Taylor has regularly made the three-hour drive to Flagstaff to spend a few days volunteering for the Grand Canyon Trust. At the trust’s headquarters, Taylor, a retired Nellis Air Force Base employee and an avid hiker, hops on a van packed with other volunteers and group leaders and heads out to remote reaches of the Colorado Plateau. There, the group tackles projects ranging from eradicating invasive cheatgrass on ranch lands to planting native crops on a Navajo farm cooperative. In August, Taylor spent several days in the Hopi village of Polacca, clearing trails and staging areas for the annual 30-mile “Water Is Life” run, which attracts some 800 runners.

“You see things you wouldn’t see as a tourist,” says Taylor of his repeated volunteer treks with the trust. “You get a whole new perspective, you meet real people. I appreciate the trust’s mission.”

Even with 2,000 people who have donated up to 18,000 hours annually, volunteers are just part of the Grand Canyon Trust’s mission. The organization, now in its 28th year, supports the protection of the Colorado Plateau, a vast landscape stretching from northern Arizona into Utah, southwestern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico.

Moab, Utah-based biologist Bill Hedden, a Harvard Ph.D., has been the trust’s executive director since 2003. He has steered the trust through numerous undertakings, including its recent high-profile projects—opposition to a large-scale development in the community of Tusayan, near the entrance to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, as well as a controversial gondola and riverside tourist attraction at the eastern edge of the Grand Canyon on Navajo tribal lands. “All of our projects are interesting,” notes Hedden, who joined the trust in 1996. “We take chances on things.”

The controversial Tusayan development, proposed by an Italian company, includes 3 million square feet of commercial space, hotels, a spa, dude ranch and more than 2,000 residential units, possibly increasing the community’s population tenfold. Besides sprawl and a lack of infrastructure, the major environmental issue the development faces in the arid landscape is a question of water. “Where are they going to get the water?” asks Roger Clark, the trust’s long-time program director. “The existing wells in the area are already affecting springs in the Grand Canyon. Therefore, we are opposing any new wells.“

The divisive Grand Canyon Escalade, the proposed gondola and tourist attraction, has the trust working on behalf of Navajo families opposed to the development, which they feel would desecrate a sacred, fragile environment at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. The Escalade project, the developers maintain, would bring economic development and jobs to the remote site, a promise similar to that made for the Hualapai Tribe’s Grand Canyon West, home to the still-unfinished, mired-in-lawsuits Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass walkway that extends over the canyon. Bernie Propst, Grand Canyon Escalade’s chief financial officer, previously served as CFO for the operator of Grand Canyon West.

“It’s a contentious project,” admits Clark, who joined the trust in 1989. “We support sustainable economic development, but we are opposed to any development below the canyon’s rim.”

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The trust uses all the arrows in the nonprofit quiver—advocacy, management, political action, sustainable economic development, collaboration, preservation, restoration and more. The trust has just 28 employees in Arizona, Utah and Colorado, but it has more than 3,000 members across the nation and a $4.25 million annual budget. The money comes from major donors, smaller donations, memberships and other sources. None of it comes from taxpayers.

Not bad for an organization that had its roots in a wild and woolly 1984 dory trip down the Colorado River. Veteran river runner Martin Litton piloted former California Secretary of Resources Huey Johnson, among others, down the rapids, and the group bonded over a deep love and concern for the Grand Canyon. It was the Reagan era, and Interior Secretary James Watt loomed over pristine landscapes, hostile to environmentalism and advocating development of public lands. The idea of protecting the Grand Canyon surfaced, and, a year later, the Grand Canyon Trust was born, with a mission to not only protect the canyon itself, but the surrounding Colorado Plateau.

The early trust members were hardly a bunch of sandal-wearing, granola-crunching backpackers. The members included former Secretary of the Interior and Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt, as well as former congressman and Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. Noted financier, conservationist and rancher James Trees came on board, and his Harvard/East Coast connections put him in the same orbit as philanthropists, investment bankers and other big-money types, not to mention a constellation of media members. Edward M. Norton, a Harvard alum specializing in environmental law (and the actor’s father), served as the trust’s first president.

“Jim Trees was the catalyst to get the big donors on board,” Clark recalls. “He and Ed Norton had a method of inviting prospects on Grand Canyon rafting trips, then asking for donations.” Actress Candice Bergen, director Louis Malle and anchorwoman Diane Sawyer were among those who rode the whitewater at the behest of Trees and Norton.

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If the Tusayan and Grand Canyon Escalade projects resolve themselves as hoped by the trust, they will be added to the organization’s long list of environmental accomplishments, beginning with the 1987 passage of the National Parks Overflights Protection Act, which banned flights below the Grand Canyon’s rim and created flight-free zones. In the 1990s, the trust fought for better pollution controls at two coal-burning power plants—–the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona, and the Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada. Also in the 1990s, the trust helped defeat a proposed NAFTA superhighway running north across the plateau from Flagstaff. It also advocating for better management of the Colorado River’s Glen Canyon Dam, allowing regular high-flow releases from the dam to restore beaches and habitats.

By 2000, with Hedden’s influence, the trust became more active in Utah, with projects such as purchasing and retiring 50,000 acres of oil and gas leases in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and buying the historically sensitive ghost town of Grafton on the banks of the Virgin River near Zion National Park. The trust also got 16 million tons of uranium-mill tailings removed from the bank of the Colorado River near Moab.

More recently, the trust bought the grazing rights to two ranches—850,000 acres—adjacent to the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park as a vast land-health and grazing laboratory. The organization has also pushed for new forest conservation programs in Utah and Arizona, and helped steer Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s decision to order a 20-year ban on new uranium claims on the plateau.

“We get things done,” Hedden says. “We look for solutions to the region’s toughest problems. We can sit down and talk to anyone.”

“We are a centrist organization,” Clark says. “We are not a litigious organization. We can access thought leaders and politicians that other groups cannot.”

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On the road to getting things done, the trust has hit a few speed bumps. Rather than complying with pollution-control mandates, the Mohave Generating Station shut down in 2005, citing costs, which idled a supplying coal mine in Arizona that employed largely Navajo and Hopi workers. While many welcomed the victory for air, land and water resources, the closure resulted in lost jobs for some 200 tribal members, in an area with high unemployment. Navajo Generating Station’s future is also hazy, given cost estimates of up to $1 billion or more to install pollution devices.

However, the trust, Clark points out, has long embraced its Native American members and partners, collaborating on numerous economic-development projects, ranging from tourism to solar power. They’ve worked behind the scenes to help open new hotels on Hopi land and at Monument Valley, and helped form a Navajo community-owned renewable energy retail and installation company. “We are not just a naysayer to development for the protection of the environment,” he says. “One of our biggest missions is to work with communities to focus on a sustainable economy.”

Meanwhile, the trust has successfully weathered the Great Recession. “We’ve been fortunate, though, in that we’ve controlled our expenses and done well with our donors.”

The current political landscape has also been more difficult for an organization that prides itself on bringing people to the table. “Politics was more moderate back in the 1980s,” Clark recalls. “We compromised, we found solutions. There were no hard party lines like there are today.”

Nonetheless, the trust pushes forward with new projects and initiatives. The volunteer program, which began in 1997, is another recent bright spot, meant to bring the trust’s work to a hands-on, individual level. Led by botanist Kate Watters, the program has worked to restore beavers to Southern Utah streams and rivers, remove non-native tamarisks and Russian olive trees from the banks of the Paria River and surveyed sensitive archaeological sites.

Watters has recruited many of the volunteers, who range from urban high school students and university spring-breakers to retirees. “They come from around the country and as far away as Germany,” she says. “They like to see wilderness areas and engage in the environment. The economy is bad for jobs, but great for us. We’ve been getting a lot more volunteers in their 30s and 40s.”

The bottom line, says Watters, is that the trust is an enduring presence. “We really want to change this part of the world.”