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Thursday, October 21, 2010
AZ snowmaking debate rages on


Last winter, Arizona Snowbowl got 321 inches of snow. Their attempt to make snow has landed them in a five-year legal battle.

The legal battle between Arizona Snowbowl ski area and a collective opposition that includes 13 Native American tribes and environmental heavyweights like the Sierra Club has been going on for five years now. In the next month, a federal judge in Phoenix will rule on the latest lawsuit, which alleges that Snowbowl's plans to use reclaimed effluent in its snowmaking guns is a health hazard.

The ongoing dispute has featured one other major lawsuit and has been tried by up to 11 judges at a time, from the district level to the Supreme Court. It's become a political jostling point for high-ranking Obama appointees and senators like John McCain, and it has turned Flagstaff, one of the Southwest's most culturally rich towns, into a for-us-or-against-us cauldron.

It all began in 2006, when a half-dozen tribes (including one that owns a competing ski area, Sunrise Park) sued Snowbowl as it prepared to proceed with long-ago-approved expansion and upgrade plans, including an extensive snowmaking system. The tribes primarily claimed that their religious freedoms were being violated by the intrusion of unnatural water from the snow guns.

Joe Shirley, president of the 300,000-member Navajo Nation, called the snowmaking on sacred land akin to genocide. Others have since questioned Shirley's analogies, but not all.

Ben Nuvamsa, former Hopi tribal chairman and an active member of the plaintiffs, told ESPN: "We regard the San Francisco Peaks as the home of our katsinas; our supernatural beings. We believe that when we pass away, we become part of the earth; we become the rain clouds. We come and go.

"These peaks sustained our people for thousands of years. They are our temple. We don't ask anyone to change or taint their religion in any way, because that's not Hopi; that's not us. For example, would you baptize your children with water that's not pure -- with effluent? I think the answer would be no."

Still, this dispute runs deeper than water. Back in 1979, the Native Americans sued to challenge the Forest Service's approval of Snowbowl's master plan. They lost. Ever since then, local skiers contend, the tribes have resented the ski area.

"I respect their rights. All of us in this community do. We're not bad people," said Lynda Fleischer, a local ski instructor and race coach who's lived in Flagstaff for 31 years. "In my opinion, it comes down to the fact that the Native Americans don't want us up there at all. It's made me question my residence here. Because I want to live in a ski town."

And Flagstaff has always qualified as one, ever since a Norwegian named Ole Solberg introduced skiing to the town in 1914. Snowbowl opened in 1938, making it one of the oldest ski areas in America.

Last winter, Snowbowl recorded 207,000 skier visits, an all-time high, and counted 321 inches of snow -- more than many big resorts in Colorado. It's popular with core skiers due to its open bowls, steep tree shots and 2,300 vertical feet of terrain. But the problem is that demand has outgrown Snowbowl's facilities. The newest of its two lodges is nearly 30 years old, lift lines regularly last 45 minutes. "There are almost 4,000 people here every day, and our facilities can only accommodate 2,000," said general manager JR Murray.

President of the Navajo nation Joe Shirley has said that snowmaking on sacred land is like genocide to Native Americans.

In order to upgrade its facilities -- build new lodges, clear new trails -- Snowbowl needs to borrow money. "And you can't borrow money if you don't know you're going to open," Murray said, noting the ski area has operated at a loss 11 of the past 29 years (including one winter when it only opened for four days).

"We get snow every year, but we don't know when it's going to come," Murray said. Blowing artificial snow gives Snowbowl a predictable season, something its owners can leverage with banks. Without that, they've said the business is unsustainable.

The fact that Snowbowl delivers a $50 million economic impact to Flagstaff and employs 550 people is also at hand. "Is it their livelihood?" questioned Howard Shanker, a high-profile attorney who has represented a number of tribes and environmental groups, as well as a handful of local skiers who are against Snowbowl's expansion plans. "People would still be able to ski. It would just have to snow. And remember, this is federal land."

Murray countered: "It is sacred land, but it's public land, not tribal land."

"The main thing is how insensitive people still are to Native American culture," said former Hopi chairman Vernon Masayesva. "They just have recreation on their mind, and of course the owners want money."

The fact that Snowbowl's expansion plans and snowmaking pipeline appear likely to move forward next year hasn't quieted the opposition. "It's recreation versus our way of life," said Nuvamsa, whose surname, ironically, means "powder snow." "This is how we live. The peaks are there and we practice our religion every day of the year, for thousands of years. And we will continue to do so for thousands more years. Respect our culture, respect our religion. Let nature make the snow. We have to remember that we're in the Southwest. We're forcing an industry that may not be economically practical."