Anne Minard / Indian Country Today
Hardy activists braved single-digit temperatures in Flagstaff on December 21 to protest Arizona Snowbowl, the resort atop the sacred San Francisco Peaks that will soon blanket its slopes with snow made from reclaimed wastewater.
Tribal and environmental opponents of snowmaking toted signs with the slogans “Protect Sacred Sites, Defend Human Rights,” and “Danger: Shi*tBowl; Health Hazard” in front of Flagstaff City Hall, during an all-day protest meant to coincide with the kickoff of Snowbowl’s 75th ski season this week. It will be the first season during which the resort will spray the treated effluent on a site held sacred by 13 tribes.
“What needs to happen is the government needs to afford the same rights to Native Americans that everybody else in this country enjoys,” said Klee Benally, a long-time Navajo activist on behalf of the San Francisco Peaks. He believes the failure to protect the mountain is a violation of freedom of religion for people who consider it holy.
Protester Belinda Ayze, Navajo, said this issue is one in a series that activists in her family have been publicizing and protesting for generations.
“My grandparents were activists for freedom of religion,” she said. “When I was 4 years old, they were fighting for the Native American Church, schools, civil rights movements. I grew up with all these issues and they’re still going on. I’m a grandma now.”
Protests over Arizona Snowbowl date back to the 1960s and 1970s, when tribal activists opposed the basic concept of building ski slopes on the mountain. Since snowmaking was first proposed in the early 2000s, anti-snowmaking activists have lobbied the U.S. Forest Service and the courts to stop it; they’ve been thwarted, so far, each time.
“Snowbowl has nothing to say about the continued protests,” J.R. Murray, general manager at Snowbowl, wrote in an e-mail on December 21. “Thousands of citizens enjoy their public land. We are honored to provide a quality winter recreational experience.”
But opponents aren’t giving up.
Most recently, the Hopi Tribe filed a civil action in November asking the U.S. Forest Service to withdraw its permission for snowmaking until it completes ongoing consultations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The consultations were re-opened after the Hopi Tribe commissioned a study showing threats to an endangered plant, the San Francisco Peaks groundsel, hadn’t been adequately considered.
And several activists are facing charges in federal District Court after they delivered protest letters to Forest Service officials at their Flagstaff offices in September – and allegedly dumped a bucket of reclaimed wastewater on the floor as they walked out. Flagstaff residents Klee Benally, Dawn Dyer, Michael Anders and Evan Hawbaker are charged with violating a statute that prohibits “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.” Each count carries a maximum sentence of up to six months in prison, a $5,000 fine and probation lasting up to five years. The defendants will next appear in court on December 27 for status conferences that could begin their trials.
“This issue isn’t over,” Benally said at Friday’s protest. “This political attack and my arrest don’t deter me at all from doing what I need to do to make sure our cultural practices are protected.”