By Bob Hembree
Lake Powell Chronicle
PAGE – Local businesses in Page rejoiced when the National Park Service reopened the east entrance to Grand Canyon’s south rim last week. Now, the question is, will it close again?
NPS opened the east entrance on State Route 64 to the Grand Canyon April 8. While the gate was closed since the pandemic began, the state road on both sides of the gate remained open.
The gate closing amounted to a yearlong, two-way roadblock.
Mayor Bill Diak told the Chronicle it was “a lot of letters and reaching out to a lot of partners to write letters agreeing that it should be open.”
“We had our conversations with the (Navajo) president (Jonathan Nez) this last time that we talked. He softened his position a lot. One of the things I started doing was calling the chapters and asking them their thoughts on the east entrance and got them to express their thoughts not only to the president but to the park service. So, I think that that helped tremendously.”
Diak said aides from Arizona Senator Mark Kelly and Congressman Tom O’Halleran were sitting in on the city’s meetings with NPS. Diak, referring to NPS, said, “You know, they’re saying one thing in the meeting and another thing in public.” It’s not clear if Kelly and O’Halleran influenced the NPS decision to open the gate, but Diak thinks it may have.
Diak said the east gate traffic shifted to the south entrance, causing gridlock for Tusayan. He said, “They have those traffic conditions every year, and they have for quite a few years. They haven’t fixed the problem. But this year, they started in March; normally, they don’t start until mid to late July.”
NPS reached out to area leaders a week before announcing the April 8 opening but said the decision was pending a response from Nez with a good reason not to open the gate.
According to an April 10 press release from Nez’s office, “President Nez delivered a letter to U.S. Sec. of the Interior Deb Haaland on April 7, requesting the National Park Service to hold off on reopening the east entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park, until the Navajo Nation meets with the National Park Service and the Grand Canyon National Park superintendent. The road leading to the east entrance is located within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation.”
Diak also reached out to Cameron Chapter President Charlie Smith Jr. He asked Smith if opening the east gate would pose any safety concerns. Diak quoted Smith as saying, “No, the exact opposite.”
The Chronicle spoke with Smith April 7. His concern was roadside vendors along SR 64 were traveling to Sedona, Arizona, to sell their goods and driving home late at night. Smith said, “That’s a lot of driving for those vendors.” The gate closing affected around 15 vendors on SR 64.
Smith said, “We did a community forum, and we support the opening. The turnout was 100% of people wanting it open.”
Smith believes the vendors will return to SR 64. He said, “It’s going to be hard for the tribe to tell them, ‘No.’
He added, “They’re independent.” Smith said, “The chapters will have to get together with the vendors maybe next week and find out what the status is.”
Although the Navajo Nation announces lockdowns, they’re difficult to enforce.
At the time of the Diak interview, the Navajo Nation Council was posed to open all the Nation’s roads. Diak, and others, believes the council would vote to open all the roads. Then the COVID-19 U.K. variant surfaced. The Chronicle asked Diak if he thought the variant would change anything. He said, “The variant is a concern, and I can appreciate that. He (Nez) is a very, very cautious man, and he has concerns for his people.”
The Chronicle spoke with NPS spokeswoman Kaitlyn Thomas the day before Eastgate opened. She said, “We’ve certainly had discussions on the new strain, things like infection rates, vaccination rates, herd immunity, percentage of the population locally that’s been vaccinated. We worked very closely in conjunction with Navajo Nation and the Cameron Chapter to make this decision.
“We don’t anticipate having to close down again, but of course, services might change.”
Thomas said, “We have quite a few new services that are available now in the Grand Canyon Village at South Rim. Depending on infection rates, those services can change. But we don’t expect to close down that entrance again. We can’t see the entire future through our crystal ball, but we will do our best to keep that entrance open.”
Thomas said, “It will be just like the south entrance; it will be open 24/7.”
On top of the pandemic, national parks face staffing problems. Thomas said, “We were planning on having the gas station and the trading post up and running tomorrow (April 8).”
She added, “We’ve had some hiring issues, just with processing paperwork, so we’re a little bit delayed, but we’re hoping to get all those services open as soon as possible. We’re cautiously optimistic that we’re looking at mid-month to get those services up and running.”
There are two lanes at the east entrance. Thomas said, “We generally get around a million visitors a year through that entrance.”
In 2019, South Rim had about 6 million visitors total. She said, “One-fifth of our visitation generally comes through the east entrance, about a million or so. This year, we didn’t have any because we’ve been closed since April 2020, so it’s been a full year this closure has been in place.”
Thomas said lodging, food and ice cream are available in Grand Canyon Village. Bright Angel Bicycles & Mather Point Café is still closed, and hotels are not at full capacity yet based on their individual policies. She said, “We do have most services available, just slightly different operating hours.”
Thomas said the closest available services are in Cameron, about 30 miles east of the east entrance, or 30 miles west to Grand Canyon Village. She said, “We are really excited that the entrance is open, and we look forward to welcoming guests from the east.”
In addition to Page hotels, restaurants and retail stores, the Eastgate closure impacted tour services. Christian Seamans, operations manager at Adventure Partners, said they’ve had to revise their Amangiri guests’ options. Adventure Partners is the in-house guide service for Amangiri.
“We would drive our guests utilizing the east entrance. Since the closure, we would have to drive all the way into Flagstaff and then come in through Tusayan. It just ended up being such a long drive, and then we had to tack on an additional cost for transportation costs and that sort of thing,” Seamans said. “It just ended up being such a long drive. It took away a lot of our opportunities for taking guests to the Grand Canyon. It cut back a lot of trips that we would normally do. It was certainly a big hit on us, but we’re so diversified in what we do that we just went to other areas.”
Seamans said, “It’s certainly going to help us out, and I know it will definitely help the town of Page out, and I’m certainly happy about that. I know there’s a little bit of politics involved with how the reservation works with the National Parks Service and all that jazz. I’m just happy to see it open back up again.
“We knew there would be challenges. With the struggles, I was really more concerned about how it affected our local community. Cutting off that east entrance, we understood why; the tribe really struggled with all the challenges of COVID, but boy, I’ll tell you what, it really was starting to affect in a negative way over the long term for some of the businesses.
“I don’t want to be too critical, but at the same time, at some point, we’ve got to throw our hat back into the arena.”
Seamans added, “We can absorb some of those losses and some of those hits, but it really did hurt us locally in Page, and you know I’m sensitive to that.”
As of this writing, it’s not known if NPS will honor Nez’s request to close Eastgate. The last year has proven nothing is certain in a pandemic.