Fake Snow On Sacred Peaks: "It's Like Bombing A Church"

San Francisco Peaks, Arizona (Al Hikes)

The legal battle over whether fake snow can be sprayed by a ski resort in Arizona’s 12,000-foot-high San Francisco Peaks has a new venue: the Flagstaff City Council. Tribal elders, U.S. senators, federal judges and senior Obama Administration officials all have weighed in on the controversy of artificially applying frozen water to land where the Hopi, Navajo and 11 other tribes trace their origins. Many Native Americans believe it is sacrilege for skiers and snowboarders to use the area for recreation, and more so for the ski resort owners to tamper with the natural surroundings. The Arizona Snowbowl resort says it's just trying to run a business.

The Snowbowl ski area is located on 777 acres in the Coconino National Forest. Tribes have been battling the resort since the 1970s. For the second time in 20 years, the U.S. Supreme Court last year refused to hear their case, and now the matter will be reviewed by the Flagstaff City Council. Local officials are to vote on whether to pump potable recycled water to the resort to make snow. It's unclear whether this will be acceptable to the Tribes, who were infuriated by a previous plan to use treated sewer water.

"This mountain is where life began; it created us," says Rex Tilousi, a leader of the Havasupai tribe. Native Americans journey to the peaks to collect herbs for traditional healing and worship deities they believe dwell there. Dumping artificial snow there, says Mr. Tilousi, is "like bombing a church."

For the operators of Snowbowl, artificial snow is necessary to ensre a steady ski season, which is the basis for hundreds of local jobs. "If you don't have snowmaking, the question is not if you will go out of business; it's when you will go out of business," says Eric Borowsky, the resort's owner. "We only occupy 1% of the peaks. Can't we share this?"

After years of environmental review detailed in a 600-page report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service, which oversees the federal land that the resort sits on, approved the artificial snow plan in 2005.  If the new plan to use potable water goes through, the federal government may contribute funds to off set the cost increase compared to the use of treated sewage. Arizona Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl sent a letter in March condemning "the use of taxpayer dollars to subsidize snowmaking at Arizona Snowbowl." At the same time, they called on the government to grant Snowbowl permission to start its expansion "immediately."

Can Spirituality (And The Law) Save The Environment?

(photo: Genesis Realty)

The San Francisco Peaks in Northern Arizona are considered sacred lands by more than a dozen Tribes in the region. Stunningly picturesque, the Peaks are also home to the Arizona Snowbowl – a popular ski resort that attracts thousands of people to its slopes each year. Tourism in sacred Tribal lands is often a source of socio-political tension, but when the proprietors of the Snowbowl sought a special permit from the US Forest Service to begin spraying the Peaks with artificial snow made from treated sewage water, the Navajo Nation and other local Tribes were moved to action.

Instead of utilizing typical principles of environmental law, the Tribes took a different approach. They petitioned for an injunction against the Snowbowl under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb, a federal law enacted in 1993 to prevent government actions that would substantially burden a person's free exercise of religion. The RFRA prohibits the federal government from placing a “substantial burden” on a person’s exercise of religion unless the government’s action furthers a “compelling government interest” or “is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest.” It also reinforces the “strict scrutiny” test for any governmental action that would tend to impinge on religious freedom – this is the most stringent and demanding standard for governmental actions, requiring that any the action be closely tied to a compelling government interest in order to be legal.

The Tribes argued that spraying “snow” made of treated sewage effluent on the sacred Peaks was both an unreasonable interference with their religious practices and not sufficiently related to a compelling government interest. Since the Snowbowl is located on land controlled by the US Forest Service, the issuance of a permit for the artificial snow is a governmental action subject to scrutiny under the RFRA. The Tribes succeeded in convincing a 9th Circuit panel that the spraying was a violation of the RFRA, but the decision was reversed by the full 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Tribes then petitioned the US Supreme Court and are currently awaiting review.

As global climate change increasingly calls into question modern pollution-producing lifestyles, it is interesting to ponder ancient Native philosophies regarding the environment. In Pre-Columbian times, Native American Tribes created communities that lived in remarkable harmony with nature. The Anasazi cliff dwellings in Canyon de Chelly provide a striking example of people building and operating a society based on knowledge of and respect for their natural surroundings. Those familiar with Native American culture know that this approach was based on something far deeper than mere geographic expediency; Native people viewed the earth as sacred, and embraced its preservation as a spiritual imperative.

Using legal tools like the RFRA, contemporary Native communities can work to heighten awareness and protection of lands that have ritual and religious significance – and at the same time make positive contributions to the environment for the benefit of all people.