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Grand Canyon development dealt blow

The U.S. Forest Service dealt a huge blow to a company that wants to build hundreds of homes, high-end boutiques and five-star hotels just outside Grand Canyon National Park.

The Kaibab National Forest on Friday rejected an application for a road easement that developers needed to move forward with the project in Tusayan, a small town a couple of miles from the park’s South Rim entrance.

Forest Supervisor Heather Provencio said the project is deeply controversial and opposed by most of the tens of thousands of people who commented on it. She said the envisioned development would “substantially and adversely” affect the Grand Canyon and nearby tribal lands.

Environmentalists applaud decision

Environmentalists applauded the decision and said they’re hopeful it will put a permanent stop to plans by Stilo Development Group USA. They’ve said the growth would mar the beauty of the region and stress resources.

“This is just not the right place for it,” said Ted Zukoski, an attorney for Earthjustice.

Developers have sought for decades to seize on the heavy traffic in Tusayan, bringing forth proposals that would boost the population of about 600 in Tusayan and attempt to lure even more tourists.

Stilo spokesman Andy Jacobs said the company is disappointed but willing to address concerns over water sources, the scope of the project, and the impacts on infrastructure and visitation at Grand Canyon National Park. He and the town said they weren’t given that opportunity.

Provencio said the town’s application didn’t meet screening criteria but even if it did, she likely would have rejected it because “there is significant evidence the proposal is not in the public interest.” She said the town could reapply once numerous concerns are addressed.

Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain said the Forest Service should have given the application fair consideration.

The forest’s decision also means that Tusayan cannot move forward with plans for affordable housing on land once owned by Stilo and completely surrounded by the Kaibab National Forest. The Town Council approved the creation of a housing authority and bylaws this week, said Mayor Craig Sanderson.

“We’re in the middle of pushing forward in anticipation of being able to utilize the land that we own and with this decision, it puts that on its heels,” he said. “Where do we go now?”

More than 200,000 protest development plans near Grand Canyon

The U.S. Forest Service is considering a proposal that would clear the way for a mega-development only a mile from the Grand Canyon National Park boundary.

“The local, national and international communities have spoken and the message is clear — this development doesn’t belong next to the Grand Canyon,” said Robin Silver, a founder of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Now it’s up to the Forest Service to act in the public interest and reject this proposal.”

This spring, more than 200,000 people submitted public comments urging the U.S. Forest Service to reject a special permit request from Stilo Development Group to build roads, sewers and other utilities through the public lands within the Kaibab National Forest. The access is needed to develop the 580-resident community of Tusayan, Arizona — near the southern entrance to the park — from a tourist town into a complex of high-end homes, retail stores and restaurants.

President Theodore Roosevelt guaranteed federal protection for the Grand Canyon in 1908, declaring, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it.”

The Stilo project is one of several proposals environmentalists say threaten the canyon. Another would restart operations at a nearby uranium mine.

Environmentalists say the Stilo development threatens groundwater that feeds the canyon’s creeks and springs, endangering some of the park’s most important and biodiverse wildlife habitat.

“Building a massive sprawling development at the gateway to Grand Canyon threatens the very things that the park was established to protect — the waters, wildlife, dark skies and opportunities to experience natural quiet,” said Sandy Bahr, chapter director for Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. “That is why thousands of people here in Arizona and across the country are asking the Forest Service to reject this proposal.”

The opposition includes business owners in Tusayan and nearby Flagstaff, a former Coconino County development director, a former Grand Canyon National Park superintendent, outdoor enthusiasts and many park visitors.

Also, the Department of the Interior warned the massive development was raising international concerns over potential harm to the Grand Canyon, a World Heritage Site. The National Park Service has called the project one of the biggest threats to the park in its nearly 100-year history.

David Nimkin, Southeast senior regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, added, “The Grand Canyon is one of our most beloved and iconic national parks — a sentiment that reverberated in messages of opposition sent by our members, supporters and partners in Arizona and across the country.”

On behalf of several groups, the environmental legal defense group Earthjustice submitted a letter in May urging the Forest Service to reject the proposal or, at a minimum, to prepare a full environmental impact statement.

The Forest Service will review the comments this summer and then decide whether to reject the application outright, proceed with a minimal “environmental assessment” with little public review or prepare an environmental impact statement.

An environmental assessment would take up to a year to complete. An impact statement would take twice that long.

Mega housing, retail development planned near Grand Canyon

The U.S. Forest Service is clearing the way for a sprawling urban development near the southern edge of the Grand Canyon. The development involves more than 2,100 housing units, 3 million square feet of retail space plus hotels, a spa and conference center.

The superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park has said the project is one of the greatest threats to Grand Canyon in the park’s 96-year-history of the park.

The proposal — by the Stilo Development Group — would transform the 580-resident community of Tusayan, Arizona, from a quiet tourist town into a sprawling complex of high-end homes, strip malls and resorts only a mile from the park boundary near the southern entrance.

Stilo partnered with the town of Tusayan in order to seek a federal permit to expand road and utility access through public lands in the Kaibab National Forest so development can proceed.

The U.S. Forest Service in mid-April began moving forward with the process to approve the special-use permit despite objections from the park service, park advocates and many environmental groups.

“The Forest Service is putting Grand Canyon National Park in the crosshairs by considering Tusayan’s dangerous, damaging plan for a mega-resort,” said Kevin Dahl of the National Parks Conservation Association. “This proposal is not in the public interest and is one of the greatest threats Grand Canyon National Park has seen in its history. The Forest Service can and should have rejected it out of hand.”

The National Park Service considers the mega-development a significant threat to Grand Canyon because it will require vast quantities of water and could lower the aquifer that feeds seeps, springs and streams that support wildlife and recreation on the park’s South Rim.

Groundwater pumping accompanying the development could also lower the aquifer that is the exclusive source of all water for Havasu Falls, the cultural foundation of the Havasupai tribe.

Protected lone gray wolf killed in Utah

A federally protected radio-collared female gray wolf, possibly the same wolf photographed in the fall on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, was shot and killed on Dec. 28 in Utah after reportedly being mistaken for a coyote.

The identity of the wolf is likely to be determined in the coming days or weeks.

The Grand Canyon wolf, named “Echo” in a children’s naming contest earlier this month that drew hundreds of contestants from around the globe, was confirmed through genetic analysis to be a female originating from the northern Rocky Mountains, at least 450 miles away. 

“It’s heartbreaking that another far-wandering wolf has been cut down with a fatal gunshot,” said Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This female wolf could have helped wolves naturally recover in remote regions of Utah and neighboring states. Federal authorities need to conduct a full investigation into this latest killing, which is part of a disturbing pattern.”

Dozens of wolves that dispersed far from their home territories seeking mates have been killed in recent years, often by people claiming to have mistaken the animal for a coyote. Coyotes, which are common and aren’t federally protected, are smaller than wolves, and display a more pointed snout and ears, whereas wolves appear bulkier and with markedly longer legs and a bushier tail.

Wolves are an endangered species in Utah, but the U.S. Justice Department has systematically failed to enforce the Endangered Species Act in respect to illegal shootings of animals supposedly mistaken for unprotected wildlife species; notwithstanding that a fundamental rule of firearm and hunter safety is never to pull the trigger without being 100 percent sure of the target.

“Wolves in Utah deserve real, on-the-ground protection,” said Robinson. “That means, first, keeping them on the endangered species list; second, spreading the word about their presence as an endangered species; third, prosecuting those who kill them; and finally, developing a science-based recovery plan so that instead of one or two lone and vulnerable wolves, Utah and the West will eventually boast hundreds more wolves to stave off extinction and help keep ecosystems in healthy balance.”

Last month, the center released a first-of-its-kind analysis that identified 359,000 square miles of additional habitat for gray wolves in 19 of the lower 48 states that could significantly boost the nation’s 40-year wolf recovery efforts.

The study indicated the gray wolf population could be doubled to around 10,000 by expanding recovery into areas researchers have identified as excellent habitat in the Northeast, West Coast and southern Rocky Mountains, as well as the Grand Canyon, the area where a radio-collared wolf was photographed in October.

The report documented 56 instances over 30 years where wolves have dispersed from existing core recovery areas to states where they have yet to reestablish, including Colorado, Utah, California, New York, Massachusetts and Maine. These events, which frequently ended in the dispersing wolves being shot, highlight the need for continued federal protections and recovery planning to increase the odds for dispersing wolves to survive and recolonize former terrain. The most famous dispersing wolf, OR-7, traveled hundreds of miles from northeast Oregon to California and has started a family along the border of the two states.  

Groups want action to curb air pollution at Grand Canyon

Air pollution from Navajo Generating Station has plagued the Grand Canyon for decades — the national landmark is 12 miles from the coal-fired power plant.

A complaint from a coalition of environmental groups wants the U.S. Department of Interior to “promptly declare impairment of the Grand Canyon by air pollution,” an action that would trigger stringent and timely pollutant reduction requirements for NGS.

“DOI has a unique obligation to protect national parks,” said Stephanie Kodish, clean air program director for the National Parks Conservation Association. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell “faces a pivotal decision — will she exercise her right and responsibility under the Clean Air Act to protect the Grand Canyon, its sister parks and neighboring communities or will she continue to wait for others to act, which could prolong NGS’s pollution of the Grand Canyon for decades to come?”

Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter added, “On a clear day, there is no more spectacular view than the one at Grand Canyon. But unfortunately, Navajo Generating Station, one of the most polluting coal plants in the country, continues to foul the skies over this world-renowned national park. Interior, due to its stake in the plant, and its responsibility to protect Grand Canyon must step up and take action and do so in a timely way.”

The coalition, which includes NPCA, Dine’ CARE, To Nizhoni Ani, the Grand Canyon Trust, the San Juan Citizens Alliance and Sierra Club, want Jewell to certify that nitrogen oxide (NOx) and particulate matter emissions from NGS impair air quality at Grand Canyon National Park.

“Anyone who looks can plainly see Navajo Generating Station’s pollution plume after the cool, clear air from the north settles into Grand Canyon for the night,” said Roger Clark with the Grand Canyon Trust. “Its mustard-brown smear from oxides of nitrogen and white vale of fine particles taint the sunrise and steal away sharp edges throughout the day.”

This is the second time that the Interior Department has been asked to take this action. Previously in 2009 the department demurred from this responsibility awaiting a decision from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on standards it might issue for NGS. But now, five years later, there is still no enforceable plan to reduce NGS’s NOx and particulate matter emissions.

The timing is especially vital for the Interior Department to make this certification, as the EPA is currently considering its final rule for the clean-up of NGS. It is feared that if the department continues to stay silent on action needed to restore air quality at Grand Canyon, NGS may be left to continue causing hazy views and preventable respiratory illnesses at and around Grand Canyon National Park and the neighboring communities for many years to come.

“The Department of the Interior has been irresponsive to communities suffering from vast coal plant pollution in the U.S. Southwest, including marginalizing our National Parks,” said Mike Eisenfeld with the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “While we understand the challenges our region faces (including drought, water, cost of electricity) we expect DOI to take their responsibilities seriously and engage.”

Thai mega mall top location on Instagram in 2013

Sure, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon have inspired many photographs. But a shopping mall in Bangkok has claimed this year’s crown as the world’s most photographed location on Instagram.

In its Top 10 year-end list, the photo-sharing app dubbed Siam Paragon as the planet’s most “Instagrammed” spot in 2013. It edged out No. 2 Times Square and No. 3 Disneyland in California on the list that also includes New York’s Central Park and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

Paris’ iconic steel tower got bumped off the list. And if Siam Paragon seems like an improbable winner consider this: last year’s most “Instagrammed” place was again from Thailand – Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, which this year was at No. 9.

Instagram spokeswoman Tiffany Testo said in an email response that the California-based company does not release data on how many pictures were taken.

The luxury mall in the heart of Bangkok is not exactly a world-famous landmark. Sightseeing visitors to the city typically head first to the majestic Grand Palace or take in the serenity of Buddhist temples like Wat Pho. The mall is a trendy meeting place in Bangkok that claims to have more than 100,000 visitors a day. But why is it so avidly photographed?

“All the celebrities come here and post photos of themselves,” said Sayamon Srichai, a 33-year-old Bangkok office worker walking past Paragon’s tropical Christmas garden with an outstretched arm as she smiled for her smartphone. “Regular people like me want to walk in their footsteps.”

Thailand has long been called the Land of Smiles, but it could also be called the Land of Selfies. Thais love taking pictures of themselves, documenting their daily activities and uploading the images instantly so friends know what they’re up to. The Southeast Asian country is also one world’s biggest users of social media, which could explain why a building that may not be the most photographed in the world still ends up as the most visible on Instagram.

“Taking Instagram pictures is sort of like a daily ritual,” said Jitlada Mahan, 18, another shopper posing for her phone outside the sprawling five-floor complex. “This is how I communicate with my friends. Now they know where to find me.”

Combine that passion with Thailand’s love of shopping malls, which offer air-conditioned refuge from the steamy outdoors, and the photo ops are endless.

Many shoppers treat Paragon like their personal catwalk: Visitors pose for pictures everywhere – at the aquarium, at the cineplex, the bowling alley, the outdoor Christmas garden and inside its hundreds of shops and restaurants.

Diners in the food court pause before eating to photograph their food

“I take photos of food here all the time. Almost every day,” said Jirathip Khajonkulvanich, an 18-year-old student who has 1,035 Instagram followers and has learned how to boost her online popularity. “When you take photos of food, people press `like’ more than with other pictures.”

Jirathip was having lunch with a group of fellow students from Chulalongkorn University, one of the country’s most prestigious and a short walk away from the mega mall.

Historical sites can’t compete when it comes to uploads, said one of the students, Suthasinee Tilokruanochai, who said her friends upload multiple pictures from every visit to the shopping mall.

“If you go to the Eiffel Tower, you go once. You take a picture and you leave,” said Suthasinee, a 22-year-old engineering student. “We come here every day after school.”