MEADVIEW, AZ - On one of the busiest holiday weekends of the year, some travelers looking to get to the Grand Canyon's glass-bottom Skywalk will have to pay an extra fee to cross through a private ranch in northwestern Arizona.
Land owner Nigel Turner said Saturday that it's his right as a property owner to charge what he calls an admission fee for visitors to cross a portion of the 168-square-mile Grand Canyon Ranch.
"We have rights as property owners, and what has been happening for years is buses just scream through there and throw all their trash and abuse it. It's disgusting. There's no respect," Turner told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
While the fee includes access to an hourly rodeo show and other ranch activities, the Hualapai Indian tribe -- which operates the Skywalk -- contends that the fee is unethical and potentially illegal.
The dispute centers on the Diamond Bar Road and an easement the tribe is working on paving.
Turner's staff began charging the fee Saturday. About 20 tribal members were protesting along the road.
"Suddenly threatening to close a busy road on a holiday weekend and charge visitors a toll makes Mr. Turner appear mean-spirited and hurts tourism throughout Mohave County," the tribe said in a written statement.
It went on to accuse Turner of attempting to "victimize unsuspecting tourists."
Tribal spokesman Dave Cieslak said Grand Canyon West was expected to draw thousands of people over the holiday weekend and the tribe has started a shuttle from Dolan Springs, just off U.S. 93, that will take tourists to the Skywalk to avoid the toll.
Cieslak issued the following statement:
The Hualapai Tribe is disappointed that Mr. Turner has chosen to pursue these unethical -- and potentially illegal -- actions along Diamond Bar Road. Suddenly threatening to close a busy road on a holiday weekend and charge visitors a toll makes Mr. Turner appear mean-spirited and hurts tourism throughout Mohave County.
Taxpayers have already given Mr. Turner $750,000 as part of his 2008 settlement with the federal government and Mohave County. If Mr. Turner plans to contest the settlement terms, he should bring that issue back to a County judge and not punish thousands of visitors trying to enjoy the holiday with their families.
Grand Canyon West is open for business and we encourage visitors to join us this weekend, regardless of Mr. Turner's decision to victimize unsuspecting tourists.
Some 700,000 people visit Grand Canyon West each year, either by helicopter, bus or driving their personal vehicles on Diamond Bar Road. The Skywalk -- a horseshoe-shaped glass bridge that juts out 70 feet from the canyon -- is the biggest attraction. The area also has a historic guano mine, American Indian village, Turner's western cowboy ranch and expansive views of the Grand Canyon right from its edge.
Getting there is a journey -- 2 1/2 hours from Las Vegas, 4 hours from Flagstaff and nearly 5 hours from Phoenix.
Cieslak said the road in question is the ideal way to get from Las Vegas to the Skywalk.
Turner said his attorney sent letters to the U.S. attorney's office in Arizona, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, Mohave County and others two weeks ago explaining that the road was private. He said the county validated his claim this week after sheriff's deputies told his staff last weekend that they could not charge the toll.
Turner maintains that under a settlement reached years ago, the road was returned to him and an easement was created that would allow public access.
Turner has since reopened the federal case involving the easement. He said he's concerned that restoration work will not be done once the paving project is complete.
Efforts to improve the road and ease safety concerns began long before the Skywalk was built.
Mohave County officials could not be reached Saturday for comment, and a spokeswoman for the sheriff's office did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Turner said his employees will not charge a toll for tribal members, law enforcement or emergency vehicles, or other government vehicles.
The tribe argues that despite crossing through Turner's ranch, the road is a county road. The tribe pointed to the 2008 settlement, in which Turner was paid $750,000 to drop his claims and clear the way for construction.