PAGE – The City of Page is turning up the pressure on the National Park Service. They want to reopen State Route 64.
A year ago, NPS closed the east entrance to Grand Canyon at Desert View, affecting tourism travel from South Rim to Page, adding over an hour of drive time. Mayor Bill Diak said this results in cancelations for local businesses.
For example, from Grand Canyon Village to Page through Highway 64 is a 133-mile trip. The highway closing forces potential visitors to backtrack south to Flagstaff, then travel north on U.S. Route 89A, 217 miles.
Diak, speaking at last week’s city council meeting, said, “There is no legitimate reason to have that gate closed at this time. It poses no threat to the area, 34 miles of uninhabited highway versus 3,000 [miles] of other highways that have never been closed throughout the COVID pandemic.”
City Manager Darren Coldwell said, “It’s kind of funny too because the mayor spoke with the Grand Canyon NPS and they said that it was the [Navajo] Nation that wanted it closed. We spoke to President [Jonathan] Nez, and Nez says that it’s NPS that wants it closed. So, it’s hard to say. There’s a little politics somewhere coming into play.”
Navajo Nation to allow ‘soft reopening’
Nez told the Chronicle last month that he spoke with Diak about the road closure. The 24th Navajo Nation Council last March approved legislation that closed all Navajo Nation roads to visitors and tourists because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re continuing to meet with the public health experts on a daily basis to determine when it might be safe to consider reopening,” Nez said, “but the roads remain closed to visitors until the public health emergency is lifted.”
Navajo Nation leaders recently cited a declining number of new COVID-19 cases and other improving conditions. Diné leaders announced a new public health order that allowed some businesses – including the tribe’s four casinos – to reopen on March 15 with 25 percent capacity (for some businesses) under certain restrictions.
East entrance reopening
NPS plans to open the east gate May 21. Diak asked NPS why that date. He said he was told: “That’s when we’ll be able to staff it.”
Diak said the town of Tusayan and its businesses also want SR 64 to reopen sooner. He said, “Hopefully, we’ll come up with a better date than May 21.”
According to NPS’s official website, “The east entrance to the park at Desert View remains closed because of COVID-19 lockdowns on the neighboring Navajo Nation. The East Entrance gate is locked.”
Page City Council voted unanimously to show unity and support Diak’s Resolution 1264-21 to open the east entrance of the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park.
Letter to NPS
Dear Superintendent [Edward] Keable,
I am Bill Diak, and I am writing this letter in my official capacity as Mayor of the City of Page. At last week’s informational meeting of the Grand Canyon National Park Service, I made comments expressing my community’s concern with the continued closure of Highway 64. This letter is to formalize those comments on the matter of the closure of the East Entrance. I did support the shared concern originally, nearly a year ago, that the constant traffic from Cameron to the Park could be a spreader of COVID-19. With the decline in cases and the successful rate of vaccination in the Navajo Nation it is time to allow traffic on HWY 64.
The nearly 3,000 miles of State and U.S. Highways on the Navajo Nation have remained open, as well as all Navajo Nation roads. The State is moving at a good rate of people being vaccinated, Governor Ducey has lessened the restrictions, and the Navajo Nation has knocked it out of the Park (no pun intended), over 135,000 doses of the vaccine given to its residents and climbing fast. Considering all of those factors
now, the concern has greatly lessened.
Superintendent Keable, I can tell you the economic situation is not good in Northern Arizona. The Navajo Generating Station closing in November 2019, that eliminated 2,300 high paying living wage positions with benefits are now gone! Nearly 90% of these jobs were Navajo (Diné). On top of losing NGS the “Pandemic” destroyed the last industry in Page, the tourism. The City of Page laid off 27 hardworking staff members, which is 20% of our workforce.
Approximately 1,000 seasonal jobs throughout our area were not hired in 2020. Two Navajo-owned businesses closed their doors forever in Page, which adds another 25 employees looking for work now. I am aware of 10 businesses on the Navajo Nation outside Page that closed, which is another 300 people without work. I am hoping these businesses will reopen when the Navajo Nation decides to reopen, and these people will once again be employed.
Page is the largest economic driver north of the Grand Canyon. If the East Entrance were open now, we could expect 500 of those people back to work this year. Our economic forecast estimates an additional 300 jobs next year. The last 200 created as foreign travel returns to the area. Our region has one of the highest unemployment rates in the entire country. If we have the ability to change it, we all need to look at doing our part.
If anyone can prove that the 34 miles of road from the East Entrance to Cameron is any riskier than the other 3,000-plus miles of open road on the Navajo Nation, I will stand with them and support the closure with all of my political voice.
Mr. Superintendent, having the East Entrance open now versus May 21 could have a $8 to $10 million dollar difference to the region over the next 12 months. The bookings for the 2021-2022 season are already happening. The continued East Entrance closure means more cancellations and no future bookings for our hotels, restaurants, tour groups, and recreational rental businesses. I am asking you personally to please open the East Entrance immediately.
Please feel free to contact me directly with any questions you feel may need clarified or if I can help you any further.
Diak sent copies of the letter to U.S. Secretary of Interior Acting Secretary Scott de la Vega, Gov. Doug Ducey, Sen. Mark Kelly, Sen. Krysten Sinema, Congressman Tom O’Halleran, and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.