Fake Snow a Real Sore Point as Indians Battle Ski Resort

Miriam Jordan, Wall Street Journal, August 28, 2010

When rain recently deluged northern Arizona, many Hopi tribe members interpreted it as an omen: Mother Nature was unhappy about a ski resort’s plans to spray man-made snow on peaks sacred to the Native Americans.

“When you interfere with Mother Nature,” says Hopi tribe Vice Chairman Herman Honanie, gazing at the 12,000-foot-high San Francisco Peaks, “Mother Nature has a response.”

{snip} Hopi, Navajo and 11 other tribes {snip} believe it is sacrilege for skiers and snowboarders to cruise the slopes. The Arizona Snowbowl resort says it’s just trying to run a business, not trample on tribal religious rights.

The Native Americans have been battling the resort since the 1970s. For the second time in 20 years, the U.S. Supreme Court last year refused to hear their case, and now the war of attrition is coming to a head at the Flagstaff City Council. Local officials are to vote on whether to pump potable recycled water to the resort to make snow. It’s unclear whether this will appease the tribes, who were infuriated by a previous plan to use treated sewer water.

Some believe man-made snow disrespects the natural process of precipitation. “This mountain is where life began; it created us,” says Rex Tilousi, a leader of the Havasupai tribe. Native Americans journey to the peaks to collect herbs for traditional healing and worship deities they believe dwell there. Dumping artificial snow there, says Mr. Tilousi, is “like bombing a church.”

For the operators of Snowbowl, artificial snow is a hedge against unpredictable weather, a lifeline for hundreds of mainly seasonal jobs.

“If you don’t have snowmaking, the question is not if you will go out of business; it’s when you will go out of business,” says Eric Borowsky, the resort’s owner. “We only occupy 1% of the peaks. Can’t we share this?”

{snip}

But in 2001-02, {snip} [the] resort drafted a plan to expand and produce artificial snow from treated waste water.

After years of environmental review detailed in a 600-page report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, which oversees the federal land that the resort sits on, approved the plan in 2005. The city of Flagstaff would sell the resort a maximum 1.5 million gallons a day of “class A-plus reclaimed water” during ski season, according to court transcripts.

“There was no demand for that water in the winter from golf courses, parks and schools,” says City Manager Kevin Burke. “We were just throwing it away, anyway.”

Tribal leaders were incensed. Snow made from water that had flowed through morgues, hospitals and kitchen sinks was tantamount to cultural “genocide,” said Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, the Hopi cultural preservation director, called it a “dagger in the Hopis’ spirituality.”

Backed by environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the tribes sued the Forest Service to halt the resort’s project. {snip}

In March 2007, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling barred Snowbowl’s expansion. {snip}

But the following year, the same court reversed the decision. Reclaimed wastewater for snowmaking didn’t “substantially burden” the tribes’ exercise of religion, it ruled.

{snip}

Flagstaff city officials, meanwhile, suggested switching the source for fake snow from “reclaimed” water to “recovered, reclaimed” water, that is potable. The difference: an underground filtration process that allows for natural earth cleansing. “Pushing water through dirt and rocks makes it come out cleaner on the other side,” says Mr. Burke.

{snip}

The new water plan initially threw some tribal leaders off balance. Hopi water officials informed Secretary Vilsack in a letter that fake snow from potable water was an “imperfect” but acceptable solution. Hopi Chairman LeRoy N. Shingoitewa then fired off a separate letter, saying the officials had acted without authority.

Vice Chairman Honanie reiterated the tribe’s opposition to snowmaking of any kind at a public meeting in Flagstaff on July 29.

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