May 27, 2024

Majestic Views, Ancient Culture and a Profit Fight

That the views are spectacular, no one would dispute. But a fierce legal battle has erupted over whether these are million-dollar views or whether they are considerably more valuable than that. The controversy threatens to slow the parade of tour buses, helicopters and planes that arrive daily and have put the Hualapai (pronounced WALL-uh-pie) reservation on the map.

Having a reservation a three-hour drive from the hustle and bustle of the Las Vegas Strip has proved both a curse and a blessing for the Hualapai, who control a million acres in northwestern Arizona but have long struggled to make ends meet.

When the 2,100-member tribe, which has had unemployment rates of well over 50 percent in years past but has brought them steadily down, introduced casino gambling in the mid-1990s, the venture quickly went bust. Why gamble on Hualapai land, which is traversed by unpaved, tire-piercing roads, when there are games of chance galore just across the state line in Nevada?

But the Hualapais have something that Las Vegas does not — namely, their pristine reservation, which creeps right up to the western edge of the Grand Canyon, includes a stretch of the Colorado River and provides vistas as awe-inspiring as any row of cherries lining up neatly on a slot machine.

To improve its gambit to lure more visitors from Vegas, the Hualapai teamed up with a tour operator named David Jin in 2003 to create the Skywalk, which extends 70 feet beyond the canyon rim and provides unmatched views of the floor thousands of feet below. Success, though, has brought controversy.

Before the Skywalk opened in 2007, 150,000 visitors in a good year would peer over the canyon edge on Hualapai land or raft down the tribe’s portion of the Colorado. Last year, the number had more than quadrupled, with many of the visitors paying as much as $73 to slip on booties and edge their way out onto the horseshoe-shaped walkway of glass.

Canyon-side commercialism now abounds on Hualapai land. Helicopter tours begin at $129. At the fully stocked gift shop, arrows cost $20 and full-length Indian headdresses $2,000. A 90-minute horseback ride along the canyon rim costs $75. Revenues are in the millions of dollars, although exactly how much money is in dispute.

In exchange for the $30 million that Mr. Jin, who is Chinese-born and based in Las Vegas, spent to build the Skywalk, he was to get a portion of the Skywalk profits over 25 years and a cut-rate price for the many tourists he brings to the site from all over Asia. He accuses the Hualapai of shortchanging him and has gone to court — both the tribal court in the tribal capital of Peach Springs, Ariz., and United States District Court in Phoenix — to press the matter.

The Hualapai accuse him of not fulfilling his end of the bargain by leaving ancillary parts of the project unfinished.

The sparring, fueled by public relations consultants and prominent lawyers enlisted by each side, has largely been out of view of canyon visitors. They throw their hands in the air and pretend to be falling from the Skywalk as official photographers snap official shots. They tour a faux Indian village and watch performances by Hualapai elders, including Robert Tree Cody, an adopted son of Iron Eyes Cody, the non-Indian who portrayed one as an actor and shed a tear to lament the destruction of the natural world in an iconic 1970s TV commercial.

There was sadness among some Hualapai traditionalists when construction began at the edge of the canyon, which has long carried spiritual significance to those who live there. But that debate is now past, and plans are on the drawing board for even more bricks and mortar, including a major resort and a clubhouse for a planned canyon-side golf course.

But all those ideas seem like pipe dreams now as the Skywalk project, still not finished, finds itself stalled.

In court documents, Mr. Jin says tribal “infighting and irregularities” have complicated his dealings with the Hualapai, who he says have not paid him any profits since 2008. He said that the tribal tourism enterprise had gone through a succession of six chief executives since signing a deal with Mr. Jin in 2003.

Recently, the Hualapai removed their tribal chairman, Wilfred Whatoname, for unapproved disbursement of tribal funds. Several other tribal members have been removed for mishandling money, Mr. Jin’s representatives say.

“They have problems with accounting,” said Aimee Romero, a spokeswoman for Mr. Jin. “They have problems with their books.”

Hualapai leaders deny that the tribe has mishandled the Skywalk money, which they say is going to the betterment of tribal members. “It’s insulting,” Waylon Honga, a member of the Tribal Council, said with a scoff. “It’s really a low blow.”

Mr. Jin has gone to tribal court to try to force the Hualapai to enter into arbitration over the sharing of profits, and he sought a temporary restraining order in federal court aiming to prevent the Tribal Council from seizing his share of the Skywalk by using a recently passed eminent domain ordinance.

Mr. Jin failed to win the order, but a federal judge is now overseeing the dispute. Mr. Jin has hired Troy Eid, a former United States attorney in Colorado, to press his interests. Hualapai leaders have Paul Charlton, a former United States attorney in Arizona, on their side.

If visitors cast their eyes away from the canyon and at some of the half-finished projects around the Skywalk, they can see evidence of the legal standoff. The visitors’ center remains an unfinished construction site with exposed walls and ceilings, yellow “Caution” tape in place and no functioning utilities.

Documents produced by Mr. Jin’s representatives indicate that it was the Hualapais’ responsibility to provide the utilities at the Skywalk site. Documents produced by the tribe suggest the opposite.

“Eminent domain is an option the tribe is weighing,” Mr. Honga said. “We don’t want to go to that extent. We are hopeful that we can come to a resolution.”

In court papers, Mr. Jin estimates the Skywalk’s worth, over the next two decades, at $100 million and wants to be reimbursed his share if the tribe chooses to void the contract. Hualapai leaders say Mr. Jin would be paid “fair market value,” but call his estimate of the Skywalk’s worth absurdly high.

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