KNAU and Arizona News
4:11 pm
Tue June 9, 2009

Snowmaking given go-ahead on the Peaks

Flagstaff, AZ – The Supreme Court has turned down an appeal from several Arizona Indian tribes that want to block expansion of the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort on the San Francisco Peaks, mountains they consider sacred. Without comment yesterday the justices said they won't get involved in the dispute.

Yesterday's decision clears the way for the Arizona Snowbowl to use treated wastewater to make artificial snow. But Brady Smith, public affairs officer with the Coconino National Forest, says that likely won't happen by next ski season.

"That's going to involve laying miles of pipeline, a lot of infrastructure, a lot of people on their part and our part, it's not going to be done by this next ski season, at least according to Snowbowl."

Smith says any improvements Snowbowl wants to make still need to be approved by Coconino National Forest supervisor Nora Rasure. And those decisions won't be made until the forest service first consults with concerned Indian tribes.

"Figuring out what people's concerns are, mitigating those concerns. So it won't be anything that happens very quickly."

The case has see-sawed in the federal courts for the past several years, since the Coconino National forest first approved Snowbowl's expansion seven years ago. The Navajo, Hopi and other tribes sued to stop the plan. They hold the San Francisco Peaks sacred, and argued that snowmaking using reclaimed water would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

A three-judge panel of the 9th circuit court of appeals initially sided with the tribes, overturning a district judge's ruling. But last year that decision was reversed by the full appellate court, which ruled that snowmaking would not substantially burden the practice of the tribes' religions. Josh Butler is a spokesman for Navajo Nation council president Lawrence Morgan.

"It's very unfortunate that our non native relatives in Washington particularly the Supreme Court do not realize the seriousness of their decisions. The San Fran Peaks are a very significant relative, that we attribute value, concern and meaning to. That's basically how the Navajo people see the sacred mountain."

Attorney Howard Shanker represented the Navajo Nation and other plaintiffs. He says Native Americans now have no ability to protect sacred sites located on federal lands.

"Unfortunately, the court tended to take an ethno-centric point of view in dealing with the facts and issues, which is not what they're supposed to do. They're not supposed to become the arbiter of religion. They're supposed to determine whether or not your religious practice is sincerely held.''

But Flagstaff chamber of commerce CEO Julie Pastrick praised yesterday's decision. She called it a little economic stimulus package for the city.

"The Snowbowl's impacts on Flagstaff's economy just ripples through in many ways at a time when we really need to boost our local economy I think we're all hoping that with a consistent and reliable season the economy will gain year after year."

Many people expressed relief that the costly and complex litigation over Snowbowl's expansion plans appears to be over. But attorney Howard Shanker doesn't rule out further legal action. He says there are still many people who aren't ready to give up the struggle to protect the Peaks.