Sacred Sites: San Francisco Peaks


The San Francisco Peaks are located in Arizona, on federal land within the Coconino National Forest. They are sacred to Apache, Hopi, Hualapai, Navajo, Yavapai and other Native Nations. These hugely important Peaks are home to many sacred beings, medicine places and origin sites. Myriad ceremonies are conducted there for healing, well-being, balance, commemoration, passages and the world’s water and life cycles. The U.S. Forest Service has indicated that the San Francisco Peaks are sacred and holy to over thirteen Tribes in the southwestern United States.

Yet the Forest Service and the privately owned Snowbowl ski resort, which is located on the Peaks, plan to expand the ski area and to use recycled sewage to make artificial snow. This could have a hideous impact on the Native religions and Native peoples, as well as on the water and health of the region. Native spiritual leaders have watched the creeping recreational development of the area with a wary eye for decades, but these current plans are so beyond what is tolerable action is now the only sensible course.

“We’ve got to stop the construction,” said Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly at a May 28 press conference convened by plaintiffs and supporters at the base of the San Francisco Peaks. The development plans released by Snowbowl include clear-cutting 74 acres of rare alpine habitat (home to a multitude of wildlife, including several threatened species) while making new runs and lifts, adding more parking lots, and building a 14.8 miles buried pipeline to transport up to 180 million gallons of wastewater per ski season to use as artificial snow for the 205 acres of ski slopes. The Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave Snowbowl approval for pipeline construction this past May.

According to Indigenous Action Media, the “Snowbowl’s development plans include clear-cutting 74 acres of rare alpine habitat that is home to threatened species, making new runs and lifts, adding more parking lots and building a 14.8 mile buried pipeline to transport up to 180 million gallons (per season) of wastewater to make artificial snow on 205 acres.” Snowbowl began construction of its wastewater pipeline for snowmaking in May, with the approval of the Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The protection of San Francisco Peaks has been taken up by Native Nations as well as environmental organizations. In 2006, the District Court ruled for the development of Snowbowl. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s decision in 2007 and ruled for the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation and others. Then a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Forest Service violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in allowing the Snowbowl Resort to expand over 100 acres of rare alpine ecosystem, part of the area that is sacred to Native Peoples.

More legal battles followed. The federal government challenged the decision by the Ninth Circuit and by August of 2008, the Ninth Circuit issued a new decision, in favor of development. The Native Nations submitted a writ of certiorari for the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 8, 2009, the Supreme Court declined to review the decision.

The Tribes have since attempted to reach some sort of administrative accommodation with the Obama administration but so far they’ve not gotten anywhere. The Save the Peaks Coalition subsequently filed suit against the federal government on the NEPA issue that the Forest Service failed to adequately consider the ingestion of reclaimed sewer water. The Coalition’s appeal continues today, with oral arguments expected in August or September.

For additional information, contact: Howard M. Shanker, The Shanker Law Firm, PLC, in Tempe and Flagstaff, Arizona, at (480) 838-9433 or howard@shankerlaw.net