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Who deserves the right to go down into the Grand Canyon?

Published on 9/3/2022

Who deserves the right to go down into the Grand Canyon?

Isn’t everyone entitled? 

We are providing a solution to a need

These were the pitches of developers to the council of the Navajo Nation capturned in the documentary Into the Canyon. They wanted to build a massive shopping-restaurant-transport complex at the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado Rivers in the Grand Canyon that would irrevocably alter the natural area. The development runs counter to Teddy Roosevelt’s reasoning for establishing protected lands as national parks. The wilderness cannot speak for itself, and the documentary walks the line of competing American ideas: entitlement to have the right, one might call it “the freedom to,” versus protecting our national treasures as part of our identity.

Going into the a place of such sublime beauty changes a person, so when the position is about the freedom to, it’s hard to say “No” to anyone. The documentarian’s gaze, especially when viewed on a large screen, as participants of the final Green Film Series did on August 10 persuades everyone to chime in “YES!” It captures the rich colors, the astounding spans, the sublime heights of the Grand Canyon with the same excellence Free Solo, the National Geographic documentary of a free climber who scales El Capitan in Yosemite. The difference is that it’s also a narrative of friends, mentors, and spouses committed to fidelity: to healthy relationships with the Canyon’s ecosystem and each other, instead of one man’s quest.

The central figures of the documentary Pete McBride and Kevin Fedarko and their camera crew give the next-best-thing-to-being-there glimpse, a wilderness that is 277 miles long as the eagle flies. McBride and Fedarko hiked 750 miles because of the ups, downs, and diversions it demands of humans. The lush shots rivaled the wonders of the world. So why should ableism prevent anyone from witnessing such wonders? The documentary asks us to wrestle with those hard questions.

What the developers asked the Najavo Nation to weigh was the same hard decisions made worldwide. Is it reasonable to alter the Canyon forever so that those who can afford it may take a tram up and down the side, shop, and dine luxuriously while they do? 

It’s a difficult trade-off. In the six years since the film’s release the Colorado River, which flows through the Canyon is facing significant water restrictions affecting many western states. - Major rivers and water reservoirs are dropping to “deadpool” when the water levels render the body of water unable to be used for industry. That can include generating hydro-electric power and shipping. Agriculture relies on this water, but around the world major rivers are showing similar signs of the strains of climate extremes: In recent weeks submerged WWII ships have appeared in the Rhine. The Danube is at record lows for shipping. A once submerged Buddhist statue appeared due to record lows in the Yangtze River.  In Spain, a reservoir has revealed  a 5000-year-old “Spanish Stonehenge.” Back in 2016, McBride and Fedarko struggled in large swaths of their hike to locate water because the water tables had dropped and precipitation was low.  Water is life and competition for water divides people, creates conflict, and influences migration. Consider Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel’s long running conflict for water from the Jordan River.

“Beauty can tell a story,” McBride notes in the film. Indeed, the camera captures the layers of rock revealed by the miles between the top and the bottom of the Canyon. Finding snow and frozen puddles that reflect their faces after surviving days of extreme thirst made one utter, “it was like Divine intervention.”

In the discussion that followed, participants discussed how over 350 helicopters bring tourists to extremely remote areas the Canyon daily. The question of who deserves the bottom of the Canyon experience suggests that not only are people limited by their physical ability but also their class. Why do we frame this discussion as an argument that everyone is entitled to the freedom to go to the bottom of the Canyon? Yet, we could also ask, why preserve it if so few can enjoy it? 

The question we should ask is not what are we entitled to but what makes us content. Can we be content if we don’t get ALL THE THINGS? (There’s a meme for that.) How do we measure contentment?

Into the Canyon 
used lush vistas and two guys who come out of months of hiking together with intact healthy friendship as a call to action. Together if we work on this, and if we can appreciate beauty that has been around thousands of years longer than we have been present, then we can resolve issues of access versus degradation, not mention mining and water. We are all small parts of the whole of creation. Holding our lives in humility and contentment and seeking healthy relationships with our entire planet, not just humans and pets we like, will help. 

The call to action is being honest about our complicated relationships with technological progress. On the one hand, experiencing this beauty evokes stronger relationships to the world we inhabit and might make us more careful. A movie on the big screen, with all the carbon footprint in it, might do lesser damage, but most of all, what is our starting disposition? How much gratitude can we embrace for the privileges and joys we have? How can we celebrate what other’s get that we didn’t and live vicariously and joyfully through them if we are unable to embark on the same experience? What does contentment have to do with it all?