By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX (Reuters) - A dude rancher who grew up watching John Wayne movies in England is starring in his own Old West standoff with an Arizona sheriff and an Indian tribe over access to a major Grand Canyon tourist attraction.
Nigel Turner, owner of the Grand Canyon Ranch Resort, this week put up a makeshift gate to block a dirt road used by upward of 1,000 tourists a day to visit the Skywalk, a viewing platform that juts out over the canyon's West Rim. The site is operated by the local Hualapai Tribe.
After running an air tours business based in Los Angeles, Turner, 57, bought the ranch over a decade ago. The resort offers trail rides, a bison safari, a cowboy show and lodging. In a settlement with the federal government and Mohave County in 2007, he granted an easement to allow the building of an improved bypass road to the Skywalk, one mile of which would cross his property.
Diamond Bar Road, which runs through the ranch, is the route currently used. The agreement was to run for four years. Turner was paid $750,000 for the accommodation.
According to a lawsuit filed by the rancher in May, the government has failed to abide by the terms of the settlement. Only a 4.5 mile portion of the new road has been built, and Turner argued that continued construction would kick up dust, endangering helicopter flights to his resort.
Over Memorial Day weekend, exasperated by delays he says have invalidated the agreement, Turner set up a checkpoint and toll booth on his slice of Diamond Bar, staffed by guards armed with pistols. Tourists were charged $20 each as an "attraction entry fee." The charge was fair, he said, because "for years and years ... people just stopped there taking pictures of cowboys and bison (and got) the show for nothing." The agreement has expired in any case, he argues.
The Hualapai slammed the fee as an illegal toll to fleece tourists.
"This is about somebody who decided to block the road that has been a public road for years, that has been traveled on by thousands of tourists," said tribal spokesman Dave Cieslak. "(Turner) has opted to take advantage of families who are coming up to enjoy their vacations."
The site drew protesters from the tribe last week with placards reading "Don't Pay the Fee, Shuttle-4-Free," and "Do Not Pay, It's Illegal." They continued demonstrating on Friday in an area a few miles away, said Cieslak.
Nico Avila, a Los Angeles graphic designer, said he was stopped on May 25 by three guards, one on horseback, who sought to charge him $100 as he tried to drive to the Skywalk with his mother, wife and two children.
"I told them, ‘This seems like a highway robbery,'" said Avila. He bargained the guards, who he says wore bandannas on their faces and were armed, down to $60. He felt he had been bullied at gunpoint.
The dispute escalated this week when a construction team started work on a temporary road to bypass the toll booth and keep traffic flowing to the Skywalk. Turner took a further step and blockaded Diamond Bar.
He was arrested on Tuesday by Mohave County sheriff's deputies on suspicion of misdemeanor threats and intimidation after he told construction workers he had a gun, the sheriff's office said. Turner, who was freed on bond, denies carrying a gun and said he was on private land at the time.
He says he will reopen Diamond Bar Road if the tribe stops work on the permanent alternate route, which he says is kicking up dust and putting off tourists from around the world, some 400 of whom visit his ranch each day in the summer.
"These people have booked holidays a year out ... and they started building a road in the high season," he said. "Would you want to stay at a beautiful ranch in the middle of nowhere if there's explosions going on 200 feet away, or bulldozers?"
Cieslak said he expects work on the temporary bypass to be completed early next week.
(Additional reporting by David Schwartz; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Prudence Crowther)