Sacred Lands Safe Once More

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 4, 2007 — 9 Comments

Back in October of 2005 I posted about a story concerning a coalition of 13 Native American Tribes who were trying to stop a ski resort on the San Francisco Peaks (a mountain range that is deeply sacred to the indigenous peoples from that area) from pumping recycled (non-potable) waste-water onto the mountain for snow production. At the time I summed up the issue as “Screw Your Religion! We Want To Ski!” due to the attitudes taken by park officials and the owners of the resort.

“Nora B. Rasure, the supervisor of the Coconino National Forest, wrote this year in the report that the resort “has and continues to provide a valuable recreational experience to many people, and that in order to continue providing that experience in today’s physical and business environment, changes are needed.”

In January of 2006, the U.S. District Court ruled against the coalition and for the U.S. Forest Service and Arizona Snowbowl. The Coalition vowed to appeal the decision to a higher court.

“Regrettably, there is often a rift between what is legal and what is right. We will pursue all legal means to stop this project … Snowbowl is not a destination ski area. People do not travel from across the Country and around the world to ski at Snowbowl. Indeed, many of the press reports on this issue have overstated the economic contribution that Snowbowl makes to the Flagstaff economy – which is marginal. People do, however, travel from around the world to the Flagstaff region to experience the ways of, especially the Navajo and Hopi Tribes. Other than to preserve the economic viability of a private entity, there is no adequate justification for this project.” – Howard Shanker, lawyer for the Navajo Nation

Now it seem that the coalition has finally triumphed. On March 11th 2007, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled against the pumping of waste water onto the sacred mountain for the purpose of recreation.

“We reverse the decision of the district court in part. We hold that the Forest Service’s approval of the Snowbowl’s use of recycled sewage effluent to make artificial snow on the San Francisco Peaks violates [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] RFRA, and that in one respect the Final Environmental Impact Statement prepared in this case does not comply with NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act]…If Appellants do not have a valid RFRA claim in this case, we are unable to see how any Native American plaintiff can ever have a successful RFRA claim based on beliefs and practices tied to land that they hold sacred.”

Members of the coalition celebrate their victory.
Photo by Chuck Seiverd

This is a strong ruling for the rights of Native groups. The court states unambiguously that this sort of ruling is exactly what the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was created for (though this may be the first time it has been used to stop governmental action), and that Snowbowl and the U.S. Forest Service didn’t take environmental impacts into consideration in this decision. As strong as this decision is however, it may not stop an appeal to the Supreme Court, since the “mountain recreation” industry is up in arms, and the owners of Snowbowl are bitterly lashing out at the Native tribes in interviews.

If this ruling stands, it could revolutionize the struggle for the preservation of sacred lands by tribal communities, and bring forth more legal challenges under the RFRA.

“This is a national wake up call for those that will try to desecrate sacred mountains like the San Francisco Peaks. We will not allow our voices to be ignored.”Robert Tohe, apprentice medicine man and Environmental Justice Organizer for the Sierra Club in Flagstaff, Arizona.

I personally feel that justice has been done in this case, and I am happy that the sacred land for several indigenous peoples were not carelessly desecrated for the profits of a single business. Congratulations to the Save the Peaks coalition.

Jason Pitzl-Waters