When I heard that environmentalists were sounding the alarm about a new “threat” to Grand Canyon National Park, my first thought was that the federal government had finally managed to pull the trigger on its plan to dam up and flood parts of the canyon. Damming up North America’s most beautiful canyons at taxpayer expense is, after all, a favorite pastime of the federal government.

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Visitors viewing the canyon from Yavapai Point on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. To help plan your visit to Grand Canyon National Park visit: www.nps.gov/grca/ NPS photo by Michael Quinn

It turns out, however, the perceived threat is not nearly so big and that the Navajo Nation is merely considering new development along the south rim of the Grand Canyon including 2,200 homes and 3 million square feet of commercial space. The major attraction would be specifically for the enjoyment of tourists:

The development’s main draw would be the “Escalade” Gondola Tramway, carrying tourists to the Canyon floor. Once there, visitors could walk along an 1,100-foot elevated riverwalk, eat at a restaurant, or visit an amphitheater and terraced grass seating area overlooking the Colorado River. The development would also include a Navajo cultural center and retail and art galleries.

The same tribe had earlier developed the Grand Canyon Skywalk tourist attraction, and although the new development would be on the Havasupai Reservation and not within the park, environmentalists have mobilized to attempt to prevent the development, and especially the tramway. The main problem for the environmentalists is that the development would allegedly ruin the pristine views of an undeveloped horizon that the environmentalists claim is their God-given right.

It’s interesting to see environmentalists do battle with an Indian tribe, but in contrast to the fanciful vision of tribes as un-corruptible conservationists, tribes have often been found on the pro-tourism and development side, largely as part of a response to grinding poverty on the reservations. Indeed, this latest debate will sound rather familiar to those who have previously witnessed conflicts between pro-tourism interests and environmentalists. We’ve seen it all before, albeit on a much larger scale in the past. In his economic history of the West, The Federal Landscape, Gerald Nash writes about the flooding of Glen Canyon in southern Utah:

[T]he economic considerations of varied interest groups in the area were also strong. By the 1990s about 400,000 boats were being launched on Lake Powell every year, providing the local economy with considerable income. Among the beneficiaries was the Navajo Nation, for the nearby town of Page, Arizona, provided a significant number of jobs for tribal members. Before Glen Canyon formed Lake Powell, Rainbow Bridge National Monument attracted no more than a few hundred visitors yearly, who usually arrived on foot or by mule. With a boat dock nearby, the 290-foot-high natural arch attracted 325,000 people in 1996. The Glen Canyon project clearly placed the conflict between aesthetics considerations and economic interests, between easterners and westerners in stark relief. Yet the issue was hardly dead.

In later years, when environmentalists (including the lovable — but often wrong — Edward Abbey) began pressing for the draining and destruction of some of these government-created recreation areas, they were naturally opposed by the local governments and business interests, but also by local tribes who benefited from jobs created by the tourist attractions and related industries.

The basic scenario that leads to situations like these is this: the federal government spends a lot of taxpayer money in the middle of nowhere on powerplants, roads, dams, tourist attractions, and other amenities. Local tax revenue goes up, and new jobs are created in the area. Local residents and business interests become dependent on these federally-produced amenities which no private sector operation would have built there under the same conditions. A tourism bubble of sorts ensues, and the next thing you know, environmentalists, as well as local residents who simply don’t like what tourism has done to their home towns, begin to complain about there being too many people and too much environmental degradation. But it’s not the feds who started the process who get the blame. Instead, it’s the allegedly greedy developers who wish to capitalize on the fed-created boom who somehow are responsible for all the downside of a national park and the expensive government highway that leads to it through a hundred miles of wilderness.

The current debate between the environmentalists and the pro-tourism crowd over the Grand Canyon is just the latest repeat of the same debate that’s been going on for decades over federally-subsidized “development” or conservation. Unfortunately, both sides oppose privatization of these vast swaths of public lands, but it is the pro-business, pro-tourism side that demands more government involvement and spending.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, many of the West’s huge federal dam projects (such as Lakes Powell, Mead, and Havasu) were sold to the states in part with the promise that they would generate untold amounts of wealth in tourist spending. Environmentalists have often opposed the dam projects, but they have often lost out to those who want government-subsidized tourist industries.

It is extremely unlikely that we’d even be having this conversation at all were it not for a century of federal meddling and spending in the region. Even today, the Grand Canyon is in a very remote area of the Southwest, and it would be even more remote but for all the federal involvement there. With Lake Mead to the south and Lake Powell to the north, the canyon is part of a vast socialist water-delivery system, power plants, and tourist installations. They were made possible by a political marriage between agricultural and business interests with government at all levels.

Although profit-seeking will no doubt be cast as the bad guy here, it’s important to remember that there’s precious little private real estate involved. Neither the Navajo lands or the federal lands even approach anything we might call “private property” and the nature of public ownership ensures that lands and resources are distributed not by voluntary market agreements, but through the political process. Even when bordering land is ostensibly owned by private parties, federal control of most water in the region ensures indirect federal control. What would the region look like were there anything like a private-property regime allowed to take root in the region? We can’t know the answer to this, but it is worth noting that the environmentalist-imagined dystopia of a privately owned West as a ruined landscape of pit mines and hideous cities swarming with filthy humans is unconvincing.

It is far more likely that absent the relentless federal involvement of the past century, the population and extent of permanent development in the West would be far less than it is today. Without federally-built railroads, highways, water projects, and military installations, the West would likely have grown far more slowly than it has. Most capital would have been content to stay near the main centers of capital in the eastern US in a more free market. The scarcity of water resources would have led to drastically different population patterns than we see today.

But during the twentieth century, as part of a vast militaristic and nationalistic development program, the federal government began pouring money into infrastructure and military installations throughout the West in places like San Diego, which had been a small town before the naval base was created there. This federal spending increased many times over during the Depression, and multiplied again during the Second World War and the Cold War. The high-tech aviation industries on the West Coast, for example, are almost completely inventions of federal programs in the region, as are many other industries dependent on federal spending and infrastructure.

Unfortunately, environmentalists who want to preserve remote areas of the West from future development appreciate none of this. They blame free markets for environmental disasters like the destruction of the Colorado River delta or the destruction of Glen Canyon, when they should really be looking to government as the culprits.

Will the Navajos build some restaurants on the rim of the Grand Canyon? Maybe. But when they do, just remember that free markets had nothing to do with it.

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Ryan W. McMaken is the editor of Mises Daily and The Free Market Send him mail. See Ryan McMaken’s article archives.