FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The U.S. Forest Service said Nov. 25 it was withholding snowmaking permits for a northern Arizona ski resort as a way to promote settlement talks in a long-running dispute between American Indian tribes and the resort’s owners.
The permits were delayed despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that upheld the Arizona Snowbowl’s right to spray man-made snow on San Francisco Peaks.
In addition, Snowbowl owner Eric Borowsky said talks aimed at reaching a deal had ended a month ago.
“So far, there have been no new ideas, so we’re just waiting for the notice to proceed,” he said.
The stalemate marks the latest development in the dispute in which tribes insist making snow with wastewater would desecrate land they hold sacred and infringe on their religious beliefs.
Snowbowl officials counter the man-made snow is necessary to ensure the survival of the ski area, which opened in 1937 on Forest Service land and has struggled with short seasons because of a lack of snow.
Sen. John McCain and other members of the Arizona congressional delegation have been pressuring the Forest Service for months to explain why the permits haven’t been issued.
The Forest Service said in a brief prepared statement that it hoped ongoing talks between the tribes and the Snowbowl’s owners would end in a mutually beneficial agreement.
“Ongoing conversations be-tween Native American tribes and the ski area operator may resolve outstanding concerns for the more controversial aspects of the Snowbowl improvement request,” the statement said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, did not answer several phone calls seeking additional comment.
Borowsky said his talks with Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. have ended and no further discussions were planned. Even so, he said he expects to have the necessary permits “in the very near future.”
The Forest Service is allowing the Arizona Snowbowl Limited Partnership to move forward with plans for conveyor belts to take skiers up the beginner slopes. Other improvements, however, including clearing about 100 additional acres of forest at the 777-acre resort, remain on hold.
Boronsky’s talks with tribes included a possible sale of the resort. He maintained Snowbowl is not for sale but added he has an obligation as a general partner to present any valid offers to the limited partners for a vote.
The current owners purchased the Snowbowl in 1992 for $4 million. Any sale price could be much higher.
Navajo lawmaker Raymond Maxx said he and other tribal lawmakers were encouraged by the Forest Service’s delay in granting permits.
“We’re glad that there are some people that are still respectful of our Native culture within the United States and trying to help us preserve what’s sacred to us,” he said.
McCain, Sen. Jon Kyl, and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick said the USDA is simply dragging its feet in permitting the improvements upheld by the courts.
“There doesn’t appear to be any defined point when the USDA will move forward,” said McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan.
A pending lawsuit in federal court in Arizona seeks to halt the project, saying the Forest Service failed to consider the human health risks of ingesting artificial snow.
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