Appeals Court Says Wastewater Fine For Sacred Mountain

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 12, 2008 — 6 Comments

A story I have been following since 2005 has had a new development. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has overturned a panel decision restricting the use of treated wastewater snow on the San Francisco Peaks by an Arizona ski resort.

“A federal appeals court has ruled that a ski resort’s plan to use recycled wastewater for making snow would not violate the religious freedom of Indian groups who had claimed that the practice would be blasphemous to a mountain they hold sacred. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, ruling in a lawsuit against the Arizona Snowbowl near Flagstaff that was filed by 13 tribes and the Sierra Club, overturned a ruling by a smaller panel of the court that said the plan would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

The Save the Peaks Coalition, which includes 13 American Indian tribes in its membership, has been arguing that pumping treated wastewater snow onto the mountains would be a defilement of the mountain, and a blasphemy against their indigenous beliefs and culture. In addition, the coalition has argued that no environmental impact study was undertaken by the US Forestry Service or Arizona Snowbowl before deciding to use effluent, and that the claimed economic benefits of more fake snow are largely illusory. These arguments were explored in a recent documentary “The Snowbowl Effect” (which I have embedded the trailer for above).

The Appeals Court showed a sadly typical attitude of indifference and lack of understanding in this case, claiming that the only thing being damaged were the Indian’s “feelings”.

“In the most recent ruling, the Court found that using reclaimed sewer water to make snow for skiing on an admittedly sacred site posed no ‘substantial burden’ on the Plaintiffs’ exercise of religion in this case. According to the Court, the “only effect of the proposed upgrades is on the Plaintiffs’ subjective, emotional religious experience. That is, the presence of recycled wastewater on the Peaks is offensive to the Plaintiffs’ religious sensibilities…the diminishment of spiritual fulfillment – serious though it may be – is not a ‘substantial burden’ on the free exercise of religion.” The Court dismissed Plaintiffs’ religious beliefs as calling them mere ‘damaged spiritual feelings.'”

But defiling a sacred mountain so people can ski more often is more than about “damaged spiritual feelings”, it throws entire religious systems into turmoil.

“In a time when the Hopi Katsina Spirits have answered our prayers for rain and happiness, Coconino [National Forest] has placed a dagger in the Hopis’ spirituality,” – Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office

“The San Francisco Peaks is the essence of who we are… and is the Holy House of our sacred deities whom we pray to and give our offerings,” – Joe Shirley Jr., President, Navajo Nation

“It’s like putting death on the mountain … I won’t be able to practice my religion.” – Frank Mapatis, Hualapai spiritual leader

But hey, screw their religion and culture, Snowbowl wants more snow! Needless to say, lawyers for the tribes and the Sierra Club plan on appealing this decision to the Supreme Court. We can only hope that thousands of years of tradition and faith (not to mention good environmental judgment) overcome the desire for one business to make some more money.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • gullinbursti

    Dammit. Flagstaff is my hometown and I’ve been following this story since well before I moved away, and sad to say, I’m not the least surprised. 🙁

  • Robin Emeraldfox

    Unfortunately, history tells us a lot about how the Native Americans get screwed over so long as money is involved. Once again, they are being crapped on. Quite literally this time.There’s a small bright side, though. At least they’re using treated waste water…I’m a big believer that change is constant… but things like this really try that belief.

  • HR Mitchell

    Maybe the wastewater supplier should make a similar offer to the Catholic church for use as Holy Water. Perhaps then the Court could understand just how offensive this is.

  • mrsb

    It’s pretty sad that the American government is still sticking it to the Native Americans.

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