PHOENIX – An Indian tribe fastened a massive glass-bottomed walkway to the edge of the Grand Canyon on Wednesday as part of an ambitious tourism center that has angered environmentalists and some tribal members.
The Hualapai (pronounced WALL-uh-pie), an impoverished tribe of about 2,200 people at the canyon's remote western edge, allowed a private developer to construct the $30 million Skywalk in hopes of luring tourists to the region.
The tribe will open it to the public later this month, charging $25 per person in addition to other entry fees.
Organizers expect the Skywalk to become the main draw in a community of tribal attractions that includes a cowboy town, an Indian village, helicopter tours and Hummer rides through the outback.
"The Grand Canyon has name appeal, and since part of the reservation lies in that, it only seems natural that we use the attraction to the benefit of the tribe," Hualapai Chairman Charlie Vaughn said.
At 1.07 million pounds, the Skywalk is about as heavy as four Boeing 757 jets stacked atop one another. It was perched at the canyon's edge using an elaborate system of pulleys connected to four tractor-trailers.
Underneath, hydraulic "shoes" lifted the Skywalk above a cement track, rolled it across a bed of metal rods, and set it onto four steel anchors that were drilled deep into the canyon rock. Workers then welded the walkway to the anchors.
While it was pushed out, the walkway was not anchored to the canyon wall. To keep it from tipping over the side, engineers loaded the back end with a half-million pounds of steel cubes as counterweight.
Debra Wilkerson, an assistant operations manager for Grand Canyon West, the agency that supervises the Skywalk, said Wednesday that the rollout was finished without any problems.
"Just smooth as glass," she said. "It's awesome."
The Skywalk extends about 70 feet over the rim and about 4,000 feet over the canyon floor. It's designed to withstand 100 mph winds and has shock absorbers to keep the walkway from wobbling as people walk through.
Construction began in April 2005.
David Jin, a Las Vegas developer, came up with the idea for the Skywalk a decade ago. He approached the Hualapai in 1996 with a plan to build it using his own money.
The tribe agreed on the condition that it will own the walkway. Jin will get a cut of the profits.
As it was being built this year, some Hualapai elders said they began to question the wisdom of the project. The tribe considers the canyon sacred ground, and the construction cut into land scattered with Hualapai burial sites.
"You have to be real gentle with the land," said Hualapai spiritual leader Frank Mapatis. "It's a living being, and it can feel those things."
Environmentalists also have criticized the project for diminishing the canyon's majesty.
Kieran Suckling, a policy analyst for the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz., called the Skywalk a "tacky tourist attraction."
If the Hualapais need to boost their economy, they should follow the national park's example and build their attractions away from the rim.
"The tribal leadership is turning the Grand Canyon into a zoo," Suckling said. "It's unbelievable."