Religion loses to recreation in Arizona


Jones Benally stands in the city park of Flagstaff, Ariz., and holds a chunk of basalt as if it is an injured bird. He looks down at his cupped hands and the words come steady and soft:

"Everything has a life. You got to respect it and think about what you're doing. Like when you pick up a rock," he says. "If you put it down someplace else, the rock gets confused."

A cold wind sweeps out of the north, off mountains dusted white by storms that seem less frequent than they once were in the Southwest. A few dozen people watch as Benally stoops to replace the rock in the dry grass and steps toward a folding chair.

I consider the notion of sentient rock, but don't get very far. Benally is a Navajo medicine man, so he can talk that way. I'm a white guy. But if Benally's right, there's a lot of mixed-up rock around here. Sixty thousand people live in Flagstaff, and not one of us leaves anything the way we found it.

Even without our help, this rock has seen enough violence to forget where it came from. We are standing amid a volcanic chaos: frozen lava flows, square miles of black ash and cinder cones by the hundreds.

The heart of the place stands directly in front of us: a dead volcano that leaps up from tableland to fill half the sky. English-speakers call this island in the sky the San Francisco Peaks.

Three winters ago, Flagstaff had the driest winter in recorded history. There have been plenty of dry winters lately. If I were a skier, I'd think about leaving town.

If I owned Arizona Snowbowl, a ski center that operates on the San Francisco Peaks, I might think about trying to save my business. I would cut a deal with Flagstaff City Council for a million-and-a-half gallons of reclaimed wastewater per day, then go to the Forest Service with plans to build 14 miles of pipeline up 4,000 feet of mountain to make artificial snow. That's what Snowbowl did.

And that's why Jones Benally and a circle of supporters have assembled at the foot of the mountain. The people here don't like the Snowbowl plan and don't much like the Snowbowl, period. Most skiers and local business people, however, want snowmaking. They say the plan will pump iron into the town's anemic winter economy, bring families together, maybe even keep kids off drugs.

Tree-huggers question the wisdom of doing all this for the sake of so-so skiing in one of our driest, warmest states. They talk about the delicate alpine environment and micro-pollutants in the reclaimed water. They speak of old-growth trees and the possibility of deformed frogs.

But in this debate the most resonant word on anyone's tongue is this one: sacred. The San Francisco Peaks are sacred to Jones Benally and the Navajo Tribe; to the Navajos‚ closest neighbors, the Hopi; and to at least 11 other Southwestern tribes. Tribal members see the snowmaking plan as desecration.

This gathering is billed as a "prayer vigil" for the Peaks, which makes me vaguely uneasy. I find spiritual talk embarrassing and do not enjoy group anything. But I also hate what industrial-strength skiing does to mountains, and I'm ashamed of locals who think their playtime is worth offending the religious beliefs of several hundred thousand of their neighbors. So I stare at the rock while the journalists look for good pictures. The medicine man takes his seat.

Jones Benally's son, Klee, steps into his father's place in the circle. Klee is in his twenties, tall and slender, with the razor cheekbones and shoulder-length black hair of a traditional Navajo. An artist and activist, he understands the power of image and language, and can handle these weapons with skill. A TV camera records what he says:

"There is no other place like this. Our people pray to the mountain and gather plants there for medicine. We don't ski on it. If they make snow on the mountain, it will break our people's hearts. I'm angry, but I try to find compassion for people who don't understand."

This somber talk somehow gladdens me. It is not the language of science or economics or politics. It is not practical, nor reasonable. It is prayer.

On March 8, Coconino National Forest announced its approval of Arizona Snowbowl's plans for snowmaking on the mountain. Appeals seem likely. More prayers are certain.

Michael Wolcott is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives and writes in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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