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Agency approves development near Grand Canyon

Developers will be able to build housing, hotels and restaurants on 272 acres of prime national forest land just south of the Grand Canyon under a plan endorsed Friday by federal officials.

The $330-million Canyon Forest Village project in Kaibab National Forest, a gateway to the canyon, will include 1,270 hotel rooms and 270,000 square feet of retail space. The project also involves developing 20 acres to house people working at Grand Canyon National Park.

"Free enterprise in this region is alive and well," said Eleanor Towns, Southwest regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service, which approved the plan.

Not everyone is so happy.

Several area businesspeople and politicians have threatened to sue to stop the development. Locals fear a major commercial center will cut into their profits and threaten groundwater supplies.

"When you add a Canyon Forest Village to the mix of an already fragile tourism economy I think you can do significant damage to a community like Flagstaff," said Rick Lopez, a City Council member in Flagstaff, 80 miles south of the canyon.

Flagstaff resident and Navajo tribe member Sam Minkler said he doesn't like the way such projects are commercializing what once was held sacred.

"I personally miss our olden ways," said Minkler, noting the Navajo Nation was among the tribes that backed the project.

Canyon Forest Village was the more ambitious of two plans considered by the Forest Service.

The other plan would have cut out 50 acres for federal housing and community facilities.

Towns said Canyon Forest Village would better serve tourists, ease a housing crunch and help control development. The Forest Service traded the project land along U.S. 180 for 2,220 acres scattered throughout the forest that she said could have been developed without promises that the environment would be protected.

Project developer Tom De Paolo and his investors wooed local environmental groups and tribes into supporting Canyon Forest Village by promising to transport Colorado River water by train and pipeline from Arizona's western border instead of depleting ground wells in the park.

The Forest Service's decision ended five years of analysis and public wrangling.

Officials with the Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental group, applauded the Forest Service's decision.

"This new gateway community will meet the needs of the park and its visitors," said trust president Geoff Barnard.