National Forest Service Announces New Sacred Sites Policy at the Same Time That Flagstaff Peaks Activists Are Targeted with Federal Charges and Arrest Warrants
FLAGSTAFF, AZ — On the same day that secretary Tom Vilsack of the US Department of Agriculture issued a final report on Sacred Sites and an inter-agency memorandum to work towards Sacred Sites protection, the Coconino Forest Service filed federal charges against four Sacred Sites advocates who were part of a protest at the Forest Service offices three months earlier.
On September 21, 2012 more than a dozen Flagstaff community members peacefully delivered letters to address the US Department of Agriculture’s policy on sacred places. While community members delivered the letters, a “quarantine” was also theatrically staged in the Coconino National Forest Service lobby to protest the agency’s role in approving of an Arizona Snowbowl ski area expansion and snowmaking with treated sewage effluent on the Holy San Francisco Peaks. Several members of the theatrical staging wore white suits and held caution tape with signs that said, “Quarantine Snowbowl,” “Forest Service Kills Native Culture, Stop Snowbowl,” and “Protect the Sacred.”
The four protestors are facing multiple counts (Section 261.3a) of a misdemeanor charge for allegedly interfering with a Forest officer. The statute reads, “Threatening, resisting, intimidating, or interfering with any forest officer engaged in or on account of the performance of his official duties in the protection, improvement, or administration of the National Forest System is prohibited.”
“Not only are these federal charges absurd, they are an attack on freedom of expression,” stated Klee Benally, a Dine’ (Navajo) activist who has been advocating for Indigenous religious freedom and protection of the holy Peaks for more than 14 years. “The fact that the USFS would bring these charges the same day they released their report on the protection of sacred sites demonstrates that they are not acting in good faith.”
Klee Benally delivered two letters to acting Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart calling for an immediate halt to ski area expansion and snowmaking with treated sewage effluent on the holy San Francisco Peaks. The letters were addressed to the Obama administration and included: US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Tom Vilsack, Senior Adviser for Tribal Affairs USDA Janie Hipp, Coconino National Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart, and Counselor to the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Dion Killsback. The letters called for the termination of Snowbowl’s Special Use Permit and the protection of sacred places.
The letters also focused on public health concerns due to contaminants in the treated sewage effluent that Snowbowl ski resort intends on using for snowmaking on the Holy site and demanded a moratorium on the use of treated sewage effluent, commonly called reclaimed wastewater to avoid the “ick factor”, in public places.
“I entered the building with a group of people and requested to speak to Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart, we had a cordial conversation, he accepted letters regarding the sacred sites policy, we shook hands multiple times. We broke no laws. The Forest Service is the one who is violating the law of the creator.” stated Benally. “Myself and others will turn ourselves over to the U.S. Marshall tomorrow at 8:15 a.m. so we can move towards ending this act of repression and political retaliation against us by the US Forest Service.”
The U.S. Marshall’s office is located at 123 N. San Francisco St.. Benally and others are expected to be arrested and appear before a judge for arraignment at 10:00 a.m.
According to the Forest Service complaint, the fire department and a hazmat team were called to address a potentially hazardous spill of clear liquid that had flooded the Forest Service lobby floor after protesters exited. An unknown individual allegedly tipped over a 5 gallon bucket full of what the hazmat team determined to be treated sewage effluent.
“These charges are absurd! The irony is that the USFS has authorized Snowbowl to spill more than one million five hundred thousand gallons of treated sewage effluent per day onto a rare and pristine alpine habitat. Yet they feel its appropriate to call hazmat when a pail of wastewater is allegedly poured onto their polished tile floors? I hold the USFS liable for the environmental poisoning that is set to occur on the Peaks right now,” stated Flagstaff resident Evan Hawbaker.
On December 6, 2012, while addressing more than 500 Indigenous leaders at the “White House Tribal Nations Conference” Secretary Vilsack unveiled a sacred sites report stating, “This report represents a commitment by USDA and other agencies to be better partners and improve communications about Sacred Sites, better protecting those sites, access and provide government-wide training to ensure that there is a better understanding of the relationship those sites have to decisions we make.” Vilsack continued, “While we have made strides in improving services to Tribes, much is left to be done. One step we are taking today is the filing of our Sacred Sites report.”
“The President is insistent that these Sacred Sites be protected and preserved: treated with dignity and respect. That is also my commitment as Secretary of USDA. I know my fellow Secretaries share in this commitment. We understand the importance of these sites and will do our best to make sure they are protected and respected.” Vilsack stated.