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Snowy Relations on Sacred Site Development

WASHINGTON – An Obama administration push for compromise involving the economic development of a sacred site has some tribal officials concerned that consultation has been lacking.

The issue stems from proposed fake snow production at the privately-owned Snowbowl ski resort on the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona. For years, several tribes have claimed that production of the snow, which has been proposed to be made out of recycled wastewater, would be a desecration of the traditional site. A lawsuit focused on that matter ultimately ended up going against tribal interests, and the U.S. Supreme Court chose last June not to hear an appeal. Despite the legal rulings, the Obama administration, under the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, hasn’t signed off on providing permits to allow the snow creation. Instead, it has pushed for a deal aimed at appeasing a bevy of interests, including those of tribes.

In a January letter sent to Flagstaff Mayor Sarah Presler, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote that the agency wants to work with the city “to expand the city’s water resources so that it can better serve the people of Flagstaff and provide an alternative water source to Snowbowl for snowmaking.”

Under the deal, stored water, rather than reclaimed wastewater, would be used to create snow. Vilsack’s rationale in the letter is that tribes said they believe wastewater would be a threat to the sacred nature of the peaks.

Vilsack said he would provide USDA resources to make the compromise work, and he promised agency support beyond his own if needed.

Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, both Arizona Republicans, have expressed great ire with the prospect of the plan laid out by Vilsack. McCain has even held up some USDA appointments in the Senate due to his frustration with the administration’s intervention.

“We oppose the use of taxpayer dollars to subsidize snowmaking at Arizona Snowbowl, and we will object to any attempt to secure an earmark or congressional approval of this project,” McCain and Kyl wrote in a letter responding to Vilsack’s proposal.

Both senators would prefer the ski resort be allowed to develop its business as it sees fit, sans federal intervention – even against tribal interests.

Some tribal leaders are also frustrated, but for different reasons. Of special interest to tribal officials regarding Vilsack’s letter is that it was addressed to the mayor and copied to McCain and Kyl, as well as Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick.

USDA officials said the letter also went out to tribal officials, but some have claimed they only learned of the compromise after local newspapers reported details of the offer.

Another problem some tribal leaders are having as a result of learning about the letter is that some, including the Hopi Tribe, have long expressed the view that any fake snow, reclaimed wastewater or not, is not acceptable.

“We don’t really know if this new idea that’s been floated is really consistent with tribal beliefs,” said Jack Trope, director of the Association on American Indian Affairs.

“It would have been ideal for tribes to be consulted

first,” he said, noting that while there has been some discussion between tribes and USDA, he wasn’t aware that this deal was specifically laid out to tribal leaders as the plan that the administration wanted to pursue.

“Tribes have long said that they’re wary of being brought into the room after a decision has already been made.”

Trope added that tribal leaders are in the process of talking about the cultural ramifications involved with the compromise. None have publicly said that it is accept- able to date.

Howard Shanker, a lawyer who has represented tribal interests in the situation, confirmed that tribes were not consulted before Vilsack’s decision was made public.

The development is concerning, Shanker said, although he credits the Obama administration with making an effort to at least rectify some tribal concerns – some- thing the Bush administration did not do when confronted with the situation.

“Whether what they are putting on the table is truly acceptable to the tribes, only the tribes can say,” he said, adding that legal proceedings involving other laws not accounted for in previous court rulings are still ongoing.

Justin DeJong, a spokesman for the USDA, said all affected parties, including tribes, were sent the letter.

“Secretary Vilsack strongly believes there is a viable, workable solution to meet the needs of all parties involved in the Snowbowl matter.”