By Miché Lozano
When I turned 18 years old I asked my family to take me to the Grand Canyon for the first time. I had always wanted to visit, but despite living in the same state as the Grand Canyon, traveling was an expense that my family could rarely afford. Until my first visit to the canyon that year, I had never truly understood the meaning of the word vast. I fell in love with the depth and the beauty of the canyon. The Earth’s rough history is exposed in the layers of geologic time for all to marvel at. I swore to myself that I’d return. Since then, I’ve hiked around the canyon numerous times and I love taking people there for their first times as well. This fall, Ecoflight gave me the opportunity to fly over the Grand Canyon in a small aircraft and to see the canyon from an entirely new perspective.
EcoFlight educates and advocates for the protection of remaining wild lands and wildlife habitat through experiential learning, which utilizes small aircraft to immerse people in the world of conservation. I was asked to be a part of their program, to speak on behalf of Latino Outdoors and share stories of my personal experiences with Latino Outdoors.
My goal was to help the students understand how different people experience the outdoors and how to include more perspectives, making space for folks from different backgrounds in conservation work. My colleague, Sarah Ponticello was also involved in the program; she was advocating on behalf of the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument (GGCHNM), which will protect the canyon’s currently unprotected lands for future generations to enjoy. Sarana Riggs from the Grand Canyon Trust and Jason Nez, a National Park Service archeologist, spoke to the group about the movement: Save the Confluence. Both Sarana and Jason are Diné (Navajo) and they provided their perspectives of the dilemmas that proposed construction of a tram and tourist resort at the sacred site would cause.
The Confluence is the sacred site where the bright blue waters of the Little Colorado River meet the Colorado River. The Navajo and Hopi have origin stories tied to the Confluence, they are deeply connected to what this place represents to them spiritually.
Although each of us had different agendas and prioritized some of the countless issues impacting the Grand Canyon in different ways, we all understand that this place is in need of protection. Having a National Monument designation added to this natural wonder is essential to the protection of its precious natural and cultural resources.
To be completely honest, flying over the Grand Canyon was never on my bucket list because it just seemed so unattainable. It’s one of those touristy things only rich people do, right? I try to make a conscious effort not to be elitist or resentful when I see other people enjoying the same things I enjoy. But I’ll be heading in on the Kaibab trail with a backpack ready to go hike the canyon for a few hours, then I’ll see all the people standing on the rim taking selfies and think to myself you’re not going in? You’re just gonna take photos of yourself? Really? Aggressively rolling my eyes.
I guess I like to think that experiencing the harshness of the canyon has altered the way I like to experience it: the perpetually dry heat, the spiny plants with their flowery secrets, and long hours of hiking and getting to know my friends while enveloped in the canyon’s embrace. Experiencing the canyon’s harsh features, venturing through its rugged terrain, builds character and I really like that. I did the “tourist” thing when I was 18 and visited for the first time. I just took pictures at the rim and wandered down a few switchbacks, that was it. It was beautiful and I remember enjoying it, but nowhere near the extent to which I appreciate it now. I wonder if those people on the rim get out much, I wonder if taking pictures on the rim is the most time they’ll spend outdoors. Now, everyone’s experience is different and I bet we all think that our way is the best way to experience the outdoors, until we try something new.
So there I am. I’m sitting in the cockpit of a small aircraft – taking selfies – and we’re taking off to fly over the Grand Canyon and I don’t know if I want to throw up from the sheer excitement or from the nausea that comes from flying.
We flew over the Kaibab National Forest that surrounds the Grand Canyon and I watched the tall ponderosa pines that blanket the landscape slowly blurring into a sea of green. There was no reference point for perspective, you just have to take it all in and it’s incredible. The Grand Canyon is BIG. I mean it’s really, really BIG. I was literally flying over it and I still couldn’t see all of it. I thought I knew the meaning of Vast from my first visit to the canyon, but this was different, an entirely new feeling, once again I was immersed in an overwhelming sense of wonder.
To a regular tourist who is not from the area or involved with all the political turmoil that surrounds the canyon, this view is breathtaking. But for people like myself and the other activists who were involved in EcoFlight’s program, I think this flight was something truly special. There it was. Everything that we want to protect, everything we are fighting for through policies, conferences, and petitions. The history of the Earth exposed by the famous Colorado River that sliced its way through the layers of ancient rock, allowing us to read into our past. The ancestral lands of the many indigenous people like the Navajo whose identities are deeply woven into that land. All of it, from a Condors’ eye view. The following photograph stirs a lot of emotions within me. Just south of the Grand Canyon (which is out of view) is a Uranium mine under the shadow of a sacred site known as Red Butte, on the horizon is the San Francisco Peaks mountain range (another sacred site); home to the highest point in Arizona just north of Flagstaff.
The Navajo and Hopi are their own sovereign nations, but that hasn’t stopped the historical abuse of their land. Our own government has painfully often prioritized resource extraction on Navajo and Hopi land—adding to the history of broken promises since the first treaties were signed.It also reinforced the different perspectives the government and tribal communities had in regards to land. A sacred site is disregarded for its economic value as an extractable resource. . The same uranium used to fuel the cold war and generate energy for our society inflicted tremendous cultural loss and suffering on the people of the Navajo and Hopi nations for generations. The number of threats from uranium mining claims that could be validated in the near future is staggering, including jeopardizing the water source for over 30 million people who rely on the Colorado River and indigenous groups will likely suffer the worst of those repercussions. It’s scary stuff.
I won’t go too into detail about the history of mining activities and the environmental racism that has occurred and is still happening, but I will say that contemporary relationships between natural resource agencies and indigenous groups are sometimes strained because of that painful history. Luckily, I think times are changing and people are looking at the past with disdain and feeling hopeful about moving forward into a future of improved relationships with both the land and its indigenous people.
With the breath-taking view of Grand Canyon behind me, I spoke to the group of students in EcoFlight’s program about Latino Outdoors and our collective efforts to create opportunities for Latinx communities to access the outdoors and re-connect our culture with the land. I enjoy public speaking, but I was really intrigued by the curiosity and passion the students demonstrated during their experience. I also learned so much information I never knew from the other speakers, like the issues revolving around the Confluence and all the hope people were putting behind the national monument proposal.
If the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument comes into fruition it will:
- Permanently protect 1.7 million acres of land that surround Grand Canyon National Park from new uranium mining.
- Permanently protect the entire Grand Canyon, its rich cultural and ecological heritage, archaeological sites, and waters sacred to Native American communities throughout the region.
Flying over the Canyon was most likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. I got to see the confluence for the first time and my understanding of the word vast was rejuvenated with a healthy dose of amazement. Let’s say I do get a second chance to fly over the canyon, I would definitely go for it!
I would just hate to fly over the Grand Canyon and see it peppered with mining operations and obnoxious tourist attractions that have total disregard for the validity of Native American culture and their sacred sites. I think the intrinsic value of the Grand Canyon is much too important to allow such desecration.