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Sacred Sites Policies in Conflict?

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The Forest Service has scheduled a meeting to hear Hopi Tribe objections to wastewater-enabled snowmaking for a ski resort on Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks at the same time it has approved the start of construction on the snowmaking’s infrastructure.

A former Hopi Tribal chairman and the grassroots group of which he is a part of hope an upcoming meeting on the San Francisco Peaks (Nuvatuqui) will provide a voice for tribal members who oppose the use of wastewater for the snowmaking at a resort on mountains sacred to a number of area tribes.

But at about the same time the Forest Service planned the May 31 “listening session” with Hopi tribal members it also authorized construction to begin on a pipeline to convey the wastewater used to make the artificial snow.

An estimated 1.5 million gallons per day of the treated sewage effluent are expected to be stored and sprayed on the slopes of Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort, a private venture on Forest Service lands that include the San Francisco Peaks.

Ben Nuvamsa, the former chairman, said he and a group calling itself the Silent Majority requested the Forest Service consultation “because we want the Forest Service to get first-hand knowledge from traditional leaders and practitioners on why the Peaks are important to us.

“Obviously we are disappointed the pipeline is being constructed while the Forest Service has yet to properly consult with the Hopi people. There is something very wrong with that picture. They have failed to comply with the President’s executive order on consultation with Indian tribes. Yet it was because of their decision to allow use of reclaimed sewage water for artificial snowmaking on Nuvatuqui that prompted them to begin drafting its sacred sites policy,” he said by phone.

The Forest Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of Tribal Relations were charged by the administration with making recommendations for sacred site policy changes and proposed policy language by November 2011.

Just a day before the May 17 announcement of the May 31 listening session, M. Earl Stewart, Coconino National Forest supervisor, gave the go-ahead to start construction of a 6.5-mile pipeline to carry wastewater to the ski area.

Plans for construction, erosion control, and oil spill contingencies and the project map and site designs were reviewed and approved by Forest specialists, said the letter from Stewart to J.R. Murray, Arizona Snowbowl general manager.

“In addition, Native American Tribes were contacted as consultation continues in accordance with the memorandum of agreement between the USDA Forest Service and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the Arizona State Historic Preservation Officer,” Stewart said, a consultation apparently at odds with Nuvamsa’s experience.

“We had to literally force the Forest Service to come to Hopi to consult with us, but we are skeptical the meeting May 31st will result in anything significant. This is very typical of the federal government,” Nuvamsa said, adding he hopes nevertheless for an outcome that will be favorable to Native sacred sites throughout Indian country.

The upcoming Forest Service-hosted Sacred Sites Listening Session will be held at Kykotsmovi, Arizona, site of the Hopi Tribe’s headquarters “to determine how the agency can do a better job addressing sacred site issues while simultaneously balancing pursuit of the agency’s mission to deliver forest goods and services for current and future generations,” the Forest Service announcement states.

The Listening Session is also part of a Forest Service mandate to “review existing laws, regulations and policies and examine their effectiveness in ensuring a consistent level of protection for American Indian and Alaska Native sacred sites located on National Forest System lands,” the meeting announcement states.

About five years ago, concerned tribes failed under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to halt the use of the wastewater even though the law says the government cannot interfere with Native religion unless it has a compelling need to do so. After the full U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned its earlier ruling favorable to the tribes, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the issue. An appeal on environmental and other grounds is before the circuit court.

American Indian nations objecting to the snowmaking on grounds the wastewater desecrated the Peaks included the Navajo and Yavapai-Apache Nations and the Hualapai, Havasupai, Hopi, and White Mountain Apache Tribes.