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San Francisco Peaks on Schedule for Artificial Snow from Wastewater

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The clock is ticking for tribes hoping to protect San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona, as a ski resort prepares to build a supply line for wastewater that will be used to make artificial snow.

The Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort, on Forest Service lands on the Peaks, plans to spray up to 1.5 million gallons per day of treated sewage effluent on its slopes over the objection of tribes that say it will hinder their cultural and religious ceremonies and potentially cause a health hazard.

“We have the permits and authorization and could proceed,” J.R. Murray, the resort’s general manager, told Indian Country Today Media Network on March 20. “And we will proceed once the ski season is over,” probably by mid-April.

The resort manager said he is “very aware of all viewpoints” in the wastewater issue and did not want to comment further on potential merits of the tribes’ point of view. The Hopi and Navajo are among a dozen nations in the area that object to the snowmaking.

The reclaimed wastewater will be pumped through an underground supply line to a reservoir at Snowbowl and then pumped as needed to fan guns that blow snow to ski areas requiring coverage, according to the Flagstaff Business News. Computerized equipment will spray two feet of snow on designated trails and maintain that level, initially covering 134 acres of the 205 acres approved for the operation. Trees will be cut down for the proposed water line by the end of March, according to former Hopi Tribal Chairman Ben Nuvamsa.

Spurred in part by criticism over its part in the private snowmaking venture, the Forest Service is conducting formal tribal consultations “on the effectiveness of existing department and agency sacred sites laws, regulations and procedures,” the agency said in a statement.

“It is highly ironic that a federal department, who failed to listen to the Indian tribes that hold the San Francisco Peaks (Nuva’tuqui’ovi) sacred, is now attempting to seek comments on its consultation policy on sacred sites from the very tribal nations whose concerns it failed to address in its decision to grant a permit to operators of the Snow Bowl Resort,” Nuvamsa said, inviting agency officials and the mayor of Flagstaff to Hopi.

“It is important that our traditional leadership, practitioners and tribal members address the Forest Service, as it is our traditional ceremonies that are affected by the Forest Service’s decision,” he said.

Meanwhile internal conflict is developing as Nuvamsa, who has emerged as an opposition leader, recently charged that the administration of tribal chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa had attempted to place a monetary value of $40 million on the Peaks, an allegation that Shingoitewa denied. Although monetary value must be placed in court filings, Nuvamsa said Shingoitewa’s high estimate gave tacit permission to “go ahead and desecrate Hopi’s sacred site” by indicating the tribe had indicated it could be quieted for a price.

Hopi Chief of Staff Curtis Honanie told ICTMN that the amount is not legally binding and that “we would not place a monetary value on it,” noting that the former chairman had resigned amid “much turmoil.”

Nuvamsa resigned on January 1, 2009, along with the vice chairman, after prolonged internal conflict over coal mining and related natural and economic resource issues and the role of traditional leaders. Litigation and turbulent meetings followed until Shingoitewa’s election in November, but unresolved issues remain.

Litigation over the use of wastewater for snowmaking began in 2006, when the tribes filed suit against the plan and won in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, only to see the verdict overturned in a full court hearing later. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, in which objections were raised under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The RFRA says the government cannot substantial burden a Native religious practice unless it meets a compelling government need.

The Save the Peaks Coalition and other plaintiffs have appealed a federal judge’s ruling in December that would allow the snowmaking to continue.