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


  • Meg

    I’m almost fully AI and I have mixed feelings on this. The first is that it’s wonderful that the land has been saved and will remain sacred. The second is that if we don’t change any of the land that has ever been considered sacred we wouldn’t be able to live anywhere. People have come before us, no matter where you are, that held that little spot you sit at to eat your dinner sacred. In this case, particularly because the mountain was to become yet another ski resort – fabulous – but who makes the decision the next time when someone wants to build school or a church. Who gets the privilege of drawing the line and why are they given the seemingly divine right?It’s a tough line to walk.

  • Jason

    “if we don’t change any of the land that has ever been considered sacred we wouldn’t be able to live anywhere”I think Native Americans have allowed/suffered enough change and expansion don’t you? The simple fact is that our government controls many sites sacred to indigenous Americans, and often makes bad decisions concerning them. The goal here isn’t to stop the building of schools or churches , it is to stop the mismanagement of already “protected” sites.

  • ColoradoCelt

    I am happy about this decision as well. development is one thing but making snow where there naturally is none will not create a sustainable *economic* project. That water should be going for agriculture to some Navajo and Hopi farmers who really need it.

  • Laura

    This is great news! Thanks for keeping us posted.

  • Hecate

    Good for the 9th Circuit. Who wants to go skiing on frozen sewage anyhow? I’m betting this isn’t what the drafters of the legislation had in mind. Heh.

  • Steve

    It does not particularly bother me to be seen as being “incorrect by response” by those who subscribe to the current PC feeling that the San Francisco Peaks are truly sacred and revered. I acknowledge readily that they rightfully revered by the purist among the Hopi and Navaho People – at least those who pursue their traditional ways and live by traditional means. Just remember to cut some slack for those who worship Wal-Mart and all the other things that economic advancement has brought – European style housing, the automobile, employment, and the pursuit of the so called “American Dream”.Think carefully of those that take full advantage of this “western way of life”. Are they truly those who we are to protect by this judgment?Perhaps reclaimed water is not good enough for educated people to reuse, and don’t kid yourself about those who do all over the world – just do the simple research – or that all the people in this environmentally challenged world should consider being more responsible and proactive in preserving what limited resources are indeed left, then perhaps you will be more comfortable with the Arizona Snowbowl being forced into using whatever potable water source is available to them – after all, the objection is a legal one that will remain as to their use of so called questionable quality reclaimed water. The fact is that this water is more environmentally “safe and pure” than many of the private and municipal sources of water in this country. Perhaps the efforts of a very few have triumphed again, over the needs of many – not to mention the desires broader society. Pitifully, ignorance remains bliss.

  • Jason

    Steve,I’m not against using reclaimed water (I’m actually all for it), and I’m not against progress. But I am against the stupid use of either. There is/was no great need for Snowbowl’s expansion except from the standpoint of Snowbowl. Contrary to their repeatedly stated opinion, the resort wasn’t some grand fiscal boon to the surrounding area, it didn’t draw in loads of outside business, it simply wanted to create more snow so it could make more money.Let us not confuse “mountain recreation” with progress. This wasn’t a case of the “needs of many”, unless you mean the many who want to ski more often.

  • Jason

    It is also worth noting that part of the reason Snowbowl (and the US Forestry Service) lost is because they didn’t even bother to do a study on the environmental impact of piping in and using that water. Furthermore, there is reclaimed water, and then there is reclaimed water. Pro-waste snow advocates have been wildly overstating the quality of the water that would be used.

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