An end to the "Snow War"?


Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, Arizona skiers may soon be spared the inconvenience of living in one of the Union’s warmest and driest states.

Last week the high court removed the final legal hurdle blocking Arizona Snowbowl from making artificial snow with reclaimed sewage effluent on the San Francisco Peaks—a plan which 13 southwestern tribes say will desecrate their sacred mountain.

 In a long-running lawsuit filed against the the U.S.Forest Service (the ski center's landlord) the Navajo and several other tribes had sought protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, arguing that to make snow on the mountain would decrease the "spiritual fulfillment" tribal members get from practicing their religion. By declining, without comment, to act on the tribes' appeal of a lower court ruling, the Supreme Court effectively gave Snowbowl the go-ahead.

Lawyers for the tribes say they still have several options (which appear to be long shots) for blocking Snowbowl. For now, though, Snowbowl is free to busy itself with that time-honored Western tradition: moving water uphill toward money.

Now that the Supreme Court has spoken with its silence, the ski center—which spent $1.5 million on legal fees (all the while bemoaning its lack of “predictable” revenue)—will work out a schedule with Coconino National Forest to proceed with the $13 million expansion. It includes a 14-mile pipeline, big pumps, snowmaking guns, a 10 million-gallon holding pond, additional ski runs, a snow-play area and--get this--a 2,500 square foot Native American cultural and education center.

Other results to look for:

--The Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce—which raised money to help cover Snowbowl’s legal tab—will no doubt congratulate itself on a job well done. After that, the Chamber  can begin worrying about a boycott from the neighboring tribes it has offended—including the tens of thousands of Navajos who shop (at least for now) in Flagstaff.

--Flagstaff’s City Council—which approved the sale of reclaimed water from the city's sewage treatment plant—can start reading the angry letters that will arrive from constituents asking the Council to honor Native American cultures by reneging on the deal with Snowbowl.

--Environmentalists who objected to the plan because of pharmaceuticals and other micro-pollutants in the water can watch the science unfold, to see what these things will actually do to the alpine environment and to human health.

--The Forest Service can continue trying to fulfill its unenviable, contradictory, near-impossible multiple-use mission--while attracting criticism from writers like me.

--Local whites who wrote anonymous, nasty comments on the local newspaper’s web page can cling to their stereotypes of Indians as hypocrites who would build a casino on the Peaks if they could get away with it. And indigenous people who look at relations with the United States government as a history of cultural genocide can say, “I told you so.”

But will this be the end of the story? I doubt it.

Such battles over the use of public lands may be waged in the desiccated language of environmental assessments and lawsuits, but they are won and lost by beating hearts. And the hearts of Snowbowl's opponents, I know, are resolute. For this reason--regardless of the high court’s decision--I cannot predict an end to this fight.

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