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Snow Making Causes Culture Clash

When there’s snow in northern Arizona, people from around the region flock to Flagstaff for a winter wonderland in the middle of the desert. But in the desert, that snow is unpredictable.  And that’s been an ongoing problem for the local ski resort, the Arizona Snowbowl -- until now.

After years of planning and fighting in the courts, the ski resort is finally laying the pipelines to make snow out of reclaimed waste water. But local Native American tribes still bitterly oppose the project, as they believe the mountains are sacred.

Recently protesters chained themselves across Snowbowl Road to stop crews from digging trenches for the snow making pipeline.

They chanted, “We belong to the earth! The earth does not belong to us!”

Police had to use chainsaws and a jackhammer to cut through the blockade.

“They are destroying our prayers and threatening our future, our ability to carry on. Our culture is threatened here,” saidKlee Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation who was arrested for chaining himself to an excavator. He returns each Saturday to pray on the mountain.

To many Native Americans, the San Francisco Peaks hold the universe together. It’s where their gods live. The mountain is revered as the place where their people emerged from the earth.

“So when someone says they want to take our treated sewage and put it on the mountain, to them it’s like the final affront,” said activist Rudy Preston. “It’s all they have left after 500 years of having an entire land taken from them. This is one of the few places they’re fighting to protect.”

When the first ski trails were dug in 1938 on the Peaks, Native Americans did not have the right to vote. When Snowbowl first announced plans to expand in the late 70s, the Navajo and Hopi tribes spoke out against it. More recently, they along with about a dozen other tribes fought the snow making plan all the way to the Supreme Court, and lost. Many hoped if they fought long enough, lack of snow would put the resort out of business.

But the fact of the matter is the ski area is on Forest Service land, not reservation land.  The Forest Service conducted an Environmental Impact Statement and gave Snowbowl permission to go ahead with the project. Flagstaff’s treated water is classified as A+, the highest standard. It’s used to water parks, soccer fields and golf courses.

Snowbowl Manager J.R. Murray said the only way the business will survive is with manmade snow.

“All the previous owners found themselves having to sell or being in bankruptcy,” Murray said. “The Snowbowl history is littered with repossessions, bankruptcies and foreclosures.”

Analysts speculate tourists would spend $23 million a year at local hotels, shops and restaurants if there was a consistent ski season.

“There’s a silent majority out there we know,” Murray said. “Skiers and snowboarders in Arizona can’t wait to have a predictable ski season so they know they can recreate year in and year out.”

But Klee Benally says he’s not giving up the fight.

“When my children or young people look back to this time and ask, ‘why wasn’t anything done to protect our culture and these sacred places,’ I want to have an answer,” Benally said.

The reality is that Snowbowl itself -- even with the expansion -- comprises only one percent of the mountain. But that doesn’t change how the tribes feel about reclaimed waste water on what is essentially their church.  

The Hopi recently filed a lawsuit and the Navajo plan to hold a hearing Sept. 23 to discuss what more can be done to protect the peaks.