By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - The new leader of the largest Native American tribe in the United States has reaffirmed his opposition to a controversial $1 billion Grand Canyon development project that features an aerial tram, a spokesman for his office said on Thursday.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said he has not wavered in his belief the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade project is a bad idea, despite signing an agreement upon taking office that listed it among projects his administration would pursue.
That document signed on Tuesday by Begaye and outgoing president Ben Shelly named eight projects including Escalade.
But the following day Begaye's administration said in a statement that was nothing more than a "symbolic gesture" and represented a list of the previous officeholder's projects.
"This administration has already stated it does not support the Grand Canyon Escalade project and that position has not changed," Wednesday's statement said.
"It is not in the best interests of the Navajo Nation and the Navajo people," the statement said.
Under the Escalade proposal, visitors would be shuttled from the crimson-hued canyon's eastern edge to an area some 3,000 feet below near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers.
Developers have said the project would open up access for visitors to what is currently a hard-to-reach area, and that it would include hotels, restaurants, shops and a Native American cultural center.
The confirmed opposition by the leader of the 300,000-member tribe represented a victory for a number of groups that have battled to block the project, saying it would spoil an area of great cultural significance for the Navajo.
One group, Save the Confluence, called Begaye's announcement "good and welcome news," but said in a statement that it will monitor for any attempts by the Navajo Nation Council to approve the project despite that.
"We respectfully ask the Navajo council to respect the (new administration's) decision," the statement said.
No legislation relating to the project has been introduced before the council, said council spokesman Jared Touchin.
(Reporting by David Schwartz; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Eric Walsh)