The Peaks in Context
Henry David Thoreau said, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” This is a dark time, filled with suffering, uncertainty, and widespread inequality. It is natural that we feel the trauma. It is important that we are not afraid to experience this anguish, this anger, this fear as it is still proof that we are alive. Just remember that “to suffer with” is the literal meaning of the word compassion. And none of this is to say that there is not much beauty and good in the world. Because there is. And you can read about it here.
Kyle Boggs is a local journalist who has taken it upon himself to keep a good record of what has happened on the Peaks. This section is a compilation of article he wrote for the monthly news magazine, The Noise. These articles touch on early history of the ski area, litigation in the 1970's, 1980', 2000's, and 2010's, as well as direct action campaigns that started in the summer of 2011.
The debate concerning development on the San Francisco Peaks stands as one of the most divisive issues in Flagstaff today. While most people are aware of the current decade-long debate concerning the expansion of Snow Bowl and the use of reclaimed wastewater to manufacture artificial snow, it is perhaps more important that Northern Arizona residents are reminded of the larger context from which this issue is situated.
Context is everything. In the same way that hunger issues in African nations are debated without regard to a widespread history of colonization and exploitation of people and the land, many people discuss the Snow Bowl debate as if it is only 10 years old. The truth is, 13 regional tribes, scores of environmental groups, and other concerned citizens have been battling development on the Peaks for 50 years or longer.
What we're really talking about is the tension between two opposing worldviews. But really, where to begin? Some would argue the controversy began the second Christopher Columbus was found lost at sea and rescued by Native people in 1492. Others would argue that clashes started brewing in 1629, when Franciscan Friars named the mountain range, "The San Francisco Peaks," in honor of St. Francis, despite for thousands of years prior, the mountain had already been named by the Hopi.
The explorations of Antoine Leroux of Taos, New Mexico in this area in the mid-1800s led to many people eager to explore the area, including other familiar names like Sitgreaves, Kendrick, and Beale.
Upon reaching the San Francisco Peaks, in amazement, Lt. Edward Beale, who made four major trips in this area, often following in Leroux's footsteps, remarked, "The magnificent San Francisco Mountain, capped with eternal snow, renders the landscape perfect."
The "Boston parties" who settled Flagstaff began to arrive in 1876, after a large and elaborately illustrated book circulated the east coast. The book, by Samuel Woodworth Cozzens, was called The Marvelous Country, with a focus on the area's "immense mineral wealth." In the book, Cozzen described the beauty of the Peaks, with the emphasis on the potential for exploitation and financial gain.
He wrote: "Farther to the westward, the San Francisco Peak stood like a mighty giant vigilantly guarding the priceless treasures concealed within its bosom."
Though Flagstaffians have been skiing on the Peaks since the 1930s, it wasn't until the early 60s that the seeds of cultural disharmony began germinating. It was during this time that Flagstaff Ski Club, which had been operating a small abandoned cabin on the mountain under a Forest Service special use permit, decided to build a ski lift.
Popularity among those in Phoenix and Tucson rose throughout that decade, and Flagstaff started marketing itself as a ski town, complete with ski shops, lodging, and more. The Daily Sun remarked by 1969 that SnowBowl was "World famous, among the finest in the US," though the article was not based on any studies or surveys of any kind.
Throughout the 60s, Arnal Corporation, led by "straight-talking, ex-Marine," Dick Mample, ran the SnowBowl.
"Harvard educated and Flagstaff-bred," former SnowBowl employee Bruce Leadbetter, landed a job as President of Summit Properties, a company owned by his father, Mert. Through Bruce, Summit Properties, a luxury property development corporation operating out of Phoenix and a subsidiary of the Post Corporation of Dallas, a multi-million dollar investment and development corporation, secured the acquisition of Arnal Corporation. This allowed Summit to acquire over 300 acres inside Hart Prairie.
In December 1969, Summit Properties announced its intention to develop a "ski village" on Hart Prairie below SnowBowl. "SnowBowl Village" was to be a 325-acre plot much like Vail or Aspen, Colorado, with restaurants, shops, and lodges near the base of a 5,800-ft. chairlift leading to SnowBowl. It would also include condos, apartments, vacations homes, and even a "championship golf course."
In early 1971, the County Planning and Zoning Commission approved Summit's rezoning request from a heavy commercial to a cluster-type zoning, which would allow them to proceed with their plans to build the ski village. It was also approved by the Forest Service, assuming adequate supplies of water were found, though it was not approved by County Board of Supervisors.
Because other parties owned land within 300 feet of the Summit property, the board would need a unanimous vote. At this meeting, Tio Tachias was the sole dissenting voice. He explained, among other things, that the proposed ski village would cater to the extremely rich by giving them "first crack" at all the recreational facilities. He also brought up the fact that adequate water supplies had not been secured and he was the only board member that took seriously the religious arguments of Native people. He said, "I think that we have shown too little respect and disregarded their feelings and values for too long." Needless to say, Mr. Tachias was hailed as a "political ecological hero" to some and "road block" to others.
In February 1972, Summit resubmitted their plans, this time boasting the company's wells would supply 830,000 gallons of water per day, enough for a community of 11,000 or more residents, as well as not one golf course, but two. The items were rejected, but the Planning and Zoning Commission's decision had nothing to do with the erroneous plans themselves, but because Summit failed to submit its request at least ten days before the hearing. Summit resubmitted their plans in April and they were approved by the commission, given adequate supplies of water could be found.
Summits preliminary subdivision layout and permits for both a golf course and a ski lift were also approved by the Board of Supervisors. Richard and Jean Wilson, who owned land adjacent to the Summit properties, filed a lawsuit, stating the county did not give adequate public notice for the rezoning request. Similarly, tribal members filed a suit to challenge the result of the hearing, citing that the notice of hearings were not printed in any newspaper circulated on reservation land and that material was not accessible by tribal members who didn't speak English.
During the time between this hearing and the legendary public hearing on January 29, 1974, which drew more than 1,400 community members to the Flagstaff High School auditorium, Summit worked hard on a public relations campaign alongside their search for water.
Deep holes were drilled throughout Hart Prairie, destroying access roads and carelessly tearing up trees and pavement. While Mample blamed the destruction on the heavy winter, eye-witness complaints filed by property owners resulted in the city demanding Summit rebuild the roads. "...The road has been gouged and rutted outrageously. The destruction of trees along the edges of the road can clearly be seen. This seems to be from the careless use of machinery backing into and running down healthy pine trees."
Despite the vast amounts of anti-development editorials, the local media consistently showed clear bias in the developer's favor. One exposé in Arizona Living that came out in July of 1972 interviewed General Manager of SnowBowl, Dick Mample in an article headlining: "Festive Future is assured and surrounding environs as the City's own Bruce Leadbetter and his troy Post Company lay groundwork for a plush, total-environment winter community destined to gain Flagstaff international ranking as a skiing center." The article went on to describe Mr. Mample as "ruggedly handsome." Similarly, in April of 1973, the Daily Sun ran a promotional article for Snow Bowl. Given the title, "Snow Bowl Becoming Top Resort for Skiers" with a picturesque winter-wonderland scene of a skier taking the lift up Agassiz Peak.
In the latter part of the year, Summit invited county board members to check out its elaborate "Tres Vidas" resort in Acapulco, Mexico so they would have an accurate understanding of what Summit would bring to the San Francisco Peaks. It was ambiguous whether or not expenses were paid.
While Mr. Leadbetter claimed each board member paid their own way, others said that Summit paid for everything but transportation. Mr. Tachias, who did not accept the invitation, responded that to compare Acapulco to Flagstaff is like comparing apples to bananas. "I have yet to see my first palm tree on the Peaks and Acapulco can't possibly have our water problems."
Another consistent voice of dissent throughout the whole case was from Northern Arizona University Geologist, John Duncklee. In a letter to the editor — among several key points against the development such as fire risks, water shortages, and respect to Native communities — he wrote: "The beauty of the San Francisco Peaks would be permanently destroyed by the proposed development. Man has yet to improve on nature's efforts by building houses, gas stations, restaurants, motels, and golf courses. The beauty of the mountain is Flagstaff's greatest asset."
Just a week before the public hearing, the Forest Service, which had been relatively silent on the issue, finally commented: "The United States Forest Service is opposed to, and recommends against, the development of Hart Prairie more specifically ... identified as SnowBowl Village."
Bruce Leadbetter wrote an editorial that came out the day before the hearing called, "Summit Plans to Serve Public," where he asserted that those who were against the development were simply not in-tune with the facts. "Most of the criticisms have been so little based on reality..." and he referred to those who have supported the development as "responsible people."
Though newspapers counted 1,400 people present at the hearing, witnesses still claim there were two thousand or more, not counting the people outside the building and in the streets that day. One Flagstaff man said in a KNAU interview that it was a very proud day for Flagstaff.
When Mr. Leadbetter approached the mic, booing was heard from blocks away. "Needless to say," he said, "I don't find this pleasant to be here. I know that I have a very hostile group of people here that I'm talking to and it is scary." Much to the crowd's pleasing, someone yelled, "Go back to LA!" To which Leadbetter responded, "I have seen old western movies about how lynchings took place and I can see how it happened."
The hearing went on until 2AM, as Native people, environmentalists, and community members gave impassioned pleas to protect the Peaks.
Further asserting his assumption that his opponents were simply not well-informed, he said, "90 percent of you are not familiar" with the development and that many people were "misinformed."
Throughout the weeks leading up the public hearing Mr. Leadbetter and others tried to pressure the Hopi and Navajo to define which parts of the mountain are sacred, refusing to hear their consistent calls to maintain the integrity of the entire range. Supervisor E. H. Wiegel interrogated Hopi Herbert Lewis, asking, when "you describe the Peaks area, at what level? How low down on the mountain do you go or how high up do you go?" Lewis responded in a similar fashion than the others who were asked. "When I meant the Peaks area, I didn't just mean half of the San Francisco Peaks or just the bottom of the San Francisco Peaks. Like my father indicated over there, he says the San Francisco Peaks has roots and this could go out for miles. We have shrines around the adjacent area of the San Francisco Peaks."
Much of this discourse, however, proved to be irrelevant to the final decision. Though the county planners rejected Summit's proposal that night, it was because over 51% of adjacent landowners did not support the measure.
The whole trial ended up being a battle over property rights. One letter to the editor stressed this important detail, which reveals the priorities of the city in relation to human rights and environmental responsibility.
"The Peaks were 'saved' for the time being because of legal technicalities. The commission did not challenge Summit Property's moral right to develop Hart Prairie. The issues of Indian Rights, and religion, of environmental protection, and the rights of the community to self-determination may as well not have been raised so eloquently ... We must make certain that we and our children will not have to defend these same Peaks ever again."
Leadbetter held on to his beliefs that, if the public was better informed on the development plans, and "not so emotional," more people would support it. This prompted him to publish an article called "A Statement of Facts" where he attempted to debunk the so-called "myths" surrounding the proposed development. "We think it deplorable that Indians and others have been misled by those who wish to accomplish a private purpose."
While most of the letters to the editor were opposed to the development, there were some voices of support for Summit. These voices pointed toward the benefits of more jobs, boosts in the economy, and that there is a clear and distinct difference between "destroying the land and developing it."
Clearly, the Hopi and Navajo, who have consistently opposed any development on the mountain, regard development as destruction. Logan Koopee, former Vice-Chairman of the Hopi Tribal Council said, "The Hopi Tribe would definitely prefer to have this area in a natural state." And in response to the constant accusations that they weren't aware of the "facts," said, "The Indian People have NOT been misled about the nature of the proposed development on Hart Prairie. They know about it and object to it."
Though Summit filed a few appeals in the late 70s, including one where it accused the City and others of a conspiracy against them, they eventually gave up and sold its land to the Forest Service. Today, much of that land is protected. Victories for Natives and environmentalists were short lived, however, as renewed attacks on the Peaks began immediately when Northland Recreation purchased the lease to operate SnowBowl in 1975. Less than two years later, the Forest Service announced that it had received a plan from Northland to develope and "improve" the SnowBowl facilities.
The Universe is our Holy Book
The Earth our Genesis
The Sky our sacred scroll
The Animals our teachers
The Mountains our prophets
The Winds our equations
The Birds our prayers
The Flowers our miracle
The Sun our source
The Moon our messenger
The Waters our testaments
The World our study
The Great Mystery our Grandfather and
Our Beginning and our End.
(Excerpt from poem “The Universe is Our Holy Book” by Native American scholar, Jack Forbes)
When environmental philosopher Derrick Jensen asked the late Native scholar Vine Deloria what the fundamental difference is between Western and indigenous ways of life, Deloria answered, “I think the primary thing is that Indians experience and relate to a living universe, whereas Western philosophy, especially science, reduces things to objects, whether they’re alive or not.”
For thirteen regional tribes, and in particular, the Hopi and Navajo, the San Francisco Peaks is not just a geological feature, an inanimate pile of dirt. It is a living entity, which plays a significant role to their spiritual identity. At a Planning and Zoning public hearing in 1974, Navajo medicineman Fred Kaye said, “The mountain…is a teacher. It teaches people the way of life. If the white man desecrates, ruins, or develops the mountain, its teachings will be lost to the people.”
In his book, God is Red, Deloria teases out many more fundamental differences between these two opposing world-views. “The Indian is confronted with a bountiful earth in which all things and experiences have a role to play…The Hopi for example, revere not only the lands on which they live but the animals with which they have a particular relationship.” Animals, plants, and mountains all play integral roles in the spiritual lives of Native people. Contrast this with a world-view created through the idea that man receives dominion over the rest of creation, and the results are polarizing. And for the Earth, the results have and continue to be devastating.
“The implications” of this difference, as Deloria continues to respond to Jensen, “is immense. If you see the world around you as made up of objects for you to manipulate and exploit, it is inevitable that you will destroy the world by attempting to control it. Perceiving the world as lifeless also robs you of the richness, beauty, and wisdom of participating in the larger pattern of life.”
At the conclusion of a nine-year struggle to preserve the natural integrity of the San Francisco Peaks from those who sought to build a luxury ski and golf condo resort at Hart Prairie, the Daily Sun observed that, “It was as if an entire area breathed a giant sigh of happiness—and relief.”
This great sense of relief, however, was short-lived.
Less than a year after Summit Properties sold its land parcels to the Forest Service, Northland Recreation purchased the lease to operate Snow Bowl in the summer of 1977, and immediately submitted a plan to expand their facilities. Owner, Norm Johnson sought to build 5 new lifts, a new lodge, expand parking lots, and clear an additional 117 acres for new ski runs.
There was a bit of a delay in response to Northland on the part of the Forest Service, as Jimmy Carter had just signed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in August of 1978. “ I must be sure my decision complies with all laws…it would be unwise to make a decision prior to complete interpretation and understanding of the new law,” Coconino Forest Supervisor Michael Kerrick told Qua’ Toqti, a newspaper circulated on the Hopi and Navajo reservations.
The act specified that “it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions…including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.”
This new legislation was a very encouraging sign to many regional Native people who assumed that the Act legitimized their spiritual identity with the Peaks in the eyes of United States law, thus it would now be illegal for the Forest Service to consider any development on lands recognized as sacred to so many people. Arizona Representative Stuart Udall, who sponsored the act, claimed, “it has no teeth,” that it merely “says to our managers of public lands that [Native people] ought to be encouraged to use these places.”
As the Forest Service’s decision was still up in the air, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater visited Big Mountain on the Navajo Reservation, where he was confronted about his position on the Peaks. He told the crowd, according the The Navajo Times, that he had written to President Jimmy Carter, asking for his help in establishing the Peaks as a “sacred area,” stating, “I want to put a stop to it…I don’t think it [the Peaks] should ever be disturbed.”
Later in the article documenting his visit, Goldwater seemed to recant his position on the Peaks by saying, “There is nothing we can do about the Snow Bowl.” Any ambiguity about his position was cleared up in a statement he made a month later, voicing his support for development. “…it would not involve any tremendous amount of acreage and doesn’t actually involve a portion of the mountain that the Navajos and Hopis have shown a great deal of interest in,” apparently choosing to ignore the clear and consistent Native voices calling to protect the integrity of the entire mountain range.
To ad insult to injury, on February 27, 1979, Coconino Forest Supervisor Michael Kerrick approved Northland’s plans to further expand the facilities at Snow Bowl. “After considering all effects, the Forest Service prefers development because legal requirements have been met, public sentiment favors development, environmental effects can be mitigated, it benefits the economy, and is consistent with Forest Service policies.” The Hopi Tribal Administration regarded the decision as “…totally without regard to the religious values and concerns of Hopis.”
Following the Forest Services decision, a meeting was held in Washington D.C. by the Task Force on the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Speaking on behalf of Richard Wilson, the Navajo Medicinemen’s Association, attorney Doug Wall emphasized “that implementation of the proposed [plan to expand facilities at Snow Bowl] amounted to a sacrilegious gouging of the body and face of what the Navajos believed to be a living and holy deity.”
At the meeting, Abbott Sequaptewa, Chairman of the Hopi Tribe, introduced two Hopi elders from the Kachina Clan. One of them, Kachina High Priest Herman Y. Lewis, was the only Native person to speak at the meeting. His statements were translated and appeared in a memorandum following the meeting. “He and his clan possessed stewardship over the San Francisco Peaks because the Kachina people live there. The spirit people live within the mountain’s interior where there is the sacred shrine or kiva. The Hopis deposit offerings on the slopes of the Peaks at a secret but specified place. The Peaks, he noted, regulated the ceremonial calendar of the Hopis as well as their entire lives and must be kept inviolate.”
Initially, the decision was appealed by Regional Forester, M.J. Hassel, who argued that the present facilities should simply be repaired and improved, but not expanded. Later that year, Forest Service Chief Max Peterson upheld the Forest Services initial decision, stating, “Neither the First Constitutional Amendment nor the American Indian Religious Freedom Act assures believers of Native American Religions that other members of society must act and behave in conformance with their beliefs.”
When the American Indian Religious Freedom Act failed to adequately defend the Peaks from further desecration, the same group sued Interior Secretary John Block, citing the Endangered Species Act. In a letter to Mr. Block, outlining the many violations any further expansion would cause to the ecological integrity of the mountain, The Wilson’s lawyer stated, “Since the San Francisco Peaks are ecologically unique, any endangered species habitat that occurs on this ‘island’ must be considered especially critical and irreplaceable.” The statement went on to cite scores of endangered species of plants, some of which are found no where else in the world, that would be directly impacted by the proposed expansion.
While awaiting word from the U.S. Supreme Court, expansion began. In 1982, the Hart Prairie chair lift is built and at the end of the year, Fairfield Communities purchased the Snow Bowl area. In early 1983, the Supreme Court officially declined to hear the Wilson’s case, affirming the lower courts decision to move forward with the expansion, resulting in construction of the Hart Prairie Lodge, the Sunset chairlift, and the transfer of the rope tow back to Hart Prairie.
Arizona Snowbowl Limited Partnership bought the ski area in 1992 and immediately expanded the Hart Prairie Lodge, added a guest service office, a rental shop, and a children’s ski school. Not content with those improvements, Snowbowl General Manager J. R. Murray revealed plans to add 66 acres of new runs and yet another chairlift less than five years later.
Around the same time, Jim Mehen, one of the principal developers of Forest Highlands, an exclusive gated community on the outskirts of Flagstaff, submitted a proposal to the Board of Supervisors requesting that a rare wetlands area on the Peaks surrounding Dry Lake be rezoned for development. The resemblance of this plan to Summit Properties plan to develop Hart Prairie into “Snow Bowl Village” is uncanny.
Mehen proposed “Flagstaff Ranch Golf Club,” (FRGC) a would-be gated community consisting of 300 luxury homes and a golf course. Like the opposition to the development of Hart Prairie nearly two decades earlier, Native people, environmentalists, and many citizens were outraged. Between the two proposed projects, it seemed like 1974 all over again.
Proponents of development pulled out the same rhetorical tactics. Opponents of Flagstaff Ranch Golf Club, according to Mehen must “…represent a small but vocal minority. We’re trying to get to the silent majority.” This sounded eerily familiar to what Summit Properties officer and Snow Bowl manager Richard Mample said in 1974. “The outspoken vocal minority are threatening in my opinion to do irreparable harm to the people of Coconino County in Flagstaff.”
Furthermore, in the same way that Bruce Leadbetter dismissed Native American religious arguments and environmental concerns in the 70’s as “emotional, having no rational basis,” and that opponents were simply not aware of “the facts,” Mehen said in 1997 “The absence of facts and the glut of emotionally-charged and misleading remarks is disturbing.”
Summit Properties lawyer, Warren Ridge, and the Forest Service proclaimed in the early 70’s that religious rights would be unimpeded, and even facilitated, by the ski lifts. Citing the low-income service jobs that would be created, Ridge said “Perhaps some of our Indian friends will welcome the opportunity to work closer to the San Francisco Peaks.”
Similarly, both Murray and Mehen explained how further expansion and development would actually improve the experience of the Peaks. In 1997 Mehen told the Daily Sun, regarding his proposal to develop a gated community at Dry Lake, “With the creation of lakes and ponds and vegetated area, the development will have a positive effect on many of the area’s wildlife.” On rezoning of Dry Lakes, Mehen said, “I want to make Dry Lake something that is more natural, that is a more productive wetlands.”
Similarly, just a few days later, Murray said of the proposed alterations of current ski runs, “What we’re trying to do,” Murray explained, “is get rid of the straight lines and try to make it look more natural.”
In 1978, Michael Brown, from the Sacred Mountain Defense Fund, looked at the ski slopes and saw scars on the mountain. In his book, Leave These Peaks Undisturbed!, he said, “How consistent are ski slope scars? They do mar an image of beauty, an image which I measure myself against. This ability to reflect is very important. I can imagine myself standing up on Humphrey’s Peak looking at town when I am actually in town…a beautiful perspective to have. But, if the mountain were to be further slashed by ski slopes, I would first have to experience the pain of these slashes. The pain would get in the way of this clear perception.”
Realizing he was beat before he even got started, Mehen withdrew his application for rezoning in November 1997.
All of these parallels should make one thing clear. When, in 1978, Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter McDonald said, “A thousand men can look at a mountain and see a thousand different mountains,” he couldn’t have been more right.
Developers, skiers, environmentalists, the chamber of commerce, Phoenicians, newspapers, citizens, and government organizations all see a different mountain according to their experience of it. Some see great, expansive beauty, or a complex and unique eco-system, while others see recreation, or money and power.
The mountain that the Navajo, Hopi, and other Native people see, however, is consistently dismissed, disregarded, and disrespected. With each hearing, proposal and subsequent expansion, they are further alienated from their sacred lands in the name of a false sense of progress and a very real sense of entitlement, which places property rights above human rights.
In 1974, at the height of Summit’s hearing, McDonald, apparently frustrated with the blatant racism directed toward him and other Native people, remarked, “If you wear your feather, make Kachina dolls, weave rugs and pose for tourists, you are a good Indian, but if you exercise your rights as citizens, you are a bad Indian.”
That was 35 years ago, and it seems little has changed. Much too often is asked, what is best for skiers and the economy? Seldom heard are questions like, what is best for Native people who look to the mountain for spiritual guidance and cultural identity? Or what is best for the mountain itself?
One woman wrote an editorial to the Navajo Hopi Observer after Mehen withdrew his application, with some questions of her own. “How many more generations of energetic young Native Americans will have their way of life ignored whenever it is inconvenient for the ‘dominant’ culture? How many more will learn the bitter truth that the sacred dollar will take precedence over even the most sacred sites of their particular tribes?”
A special thanks to Cline Library’s fantastic Special Collections and Archives at Northern Arizona University as well as the great research done by Jameson M. Fink in his 1998 Master’s thesis for NAU’s History Department titled, “The Hart Prairie/San Francisco Peaks Controversy: Culture, Land, and Conflict.”
By denying the petition to hear the case regarding local tribe’s religious and cultural imperative to protect the San Francisco Peaks, in June of this year, the Supreme Court reaffirmed two things. It upheld the 2008 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision to allow for Snowbowl to expand their operations as well as make artificial snow from the city’s treated sewage effluent. “It means that the San Francisco Peaks, sacred to so many tribes, will continue to be at great risk from the development approved by the Forest Service…It also means that the Ninth Circuit’s narrow interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)–an interpretation which in practice will make the law virtually unavailable to protect sacred lands in the states covered by the Ninth Circuit–will stand,” said Jack Trope of the Association on American Indian Affairs.
It also reaffirmed something local tribes already knew, which is that the world view guiding western law is structurally incapable of protecting the needs and interests of people whose religious and cultural identity are tied directly to the land. Don Watahomigie, Chairman of the Havasupai Tribe asked, “where do native people stand now in relation” to the “federal government when laws passed like RFRA” and others “don’t hold water?” The way the law compartmentalizes these concerns, tribes and environmental groups have been forced to try one argument and then the other, as if human rights and environmental justice weren’t related. Media spokesperson for the Save the Peaks Coalition, Rudy Preston agrees. “Because of the environmental arguments, there is a religious argument,”
Because the courts have consistently dismissed the arguments by native people to protect the San Francisco Peaks on the grounds of religion and cultural integrity, on Monday, September 21st of this year, the Save the Peaks Coalition and nine citizens have embarked on a different strategy. The group has filed a lawsuit calling for the Forest Service to take seriously the growing public health concerns regarding the safety of using treated sewage effluent they intend to use to create fake snow.
According to the Save the Peaks Coalition, “The use of reclaimed sewer water to make snow, however, was not only repulsive to people who hold the San Francisco Peaks sacred, it raised concerns from skiers and the community over the safety of being immersed in, and even eating, snow made from non-potable treated sewage effluent.”
The suite sites the National Environmental Policy Act, which states that the Forest Service is obligated to consider potential impacts the wastewater will have on the quality of the human environment. The Forest Service completely ignored the possibility of human ingestion of snow made from treated sewage effluent in their Final Environmental Impact Statement.
Snowbowl’s General Manager J.R. Murray and others have been quoted in several places asserting that the reclaimed water is not only safe enough to drink, but also cleaner than the water that falls from the sky in the form of precipitation. The problem with this claim is that it is not substantiated on anything beyond the current standards for treating and grading treated sewage effluent. “According to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality regulations, treated sewer water can be graded A+ even when it contains fecal matter in three out of every ten samples.” According to Dr. Abraham Springer, Northern Arizona Professor and director of the School of Earth Science and Environmental Sustainability, “The treated wastewater can meet all applicable water quality standards, but still not be as high of quality as precipitation.”
The other problem with this claim is that it doesn’t take into account pollutants that wastewater treatment plants either don’t test for regularly, or don’t test for at all. Studies of wastewater across the country have found compelling evidence of pharmaceuticals, hormones, endocrine disrupters, industrial pollutants, and narcotics.
Beyond the city of Flagstaff’s own evaluations of the treated sewage effluent, the only thorough tests that have been done on the water discharged from our two treatment facilities has been conducted by Northern Arizona University biological sciences professor Cathrine Propper. Her studies revealed more about the content of the water than what the City’s tests currently require. “In the last 100 years, humans have introduced hundreds of new, synthetic compounds into the environment,” Propper claims in her ground breaking study on endocrine-disrupting compounds. “How these compounds ultimately influence physiology and fitness of individual organisms, dynamics of populations, and ultimately functioning of ecosystems, is not well understood.”
Endocrine disrupting compounds, which Propper has found to exist in fish and other forms of life downstream from the City of Flagstaff’s wastewater treatment plants, “disrupt physiological processes including development, reproduction, general metabolism and behavior.”
Further, her studies have exposed compelling evidence of skewed sex ratios, whereby 100% or nearly 100% of a given population of animals is female. She has also observed dramatic increases of newborn species in testing areas born hermaphroditic, that is, male fish with evidence of eggs developing in their testicular tissue or male fish that produce female yolk protein. Because the city is not required to test for pharmaceuticals, these finding suggest high levels of estrogen in the water.
The Forest Service dismissed the studies conducted by Dr. Propper, claiming that the research is “inconclusive,” that to study the affects of fish submerged in wastewater cannot be compared to children skiing on top of it.
It was perhaps easy for the Forest Service to dismiss Dr. Propper’s arguments, because no other studies have been done on the content of Flagstaff’s wastewater. In their Final Environmental Impact Statement, however, they did point toward the strong possibility of other toxins that are likely to be present. “Industrial, commercial, and household discharges can contribute inorganic constituents to wastewater which may inhibit the effectiveness of wastewater treatment or may pass through the process without treatment or removal.”
Still, Dr. Propper warned at an Endocrine Disrupter Screening Project at NAU, in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey, “…be very concerned if anyone were to drink the reclaimed water.” It is also important to remember that Dr. Propper’s research is has been solely geared toward analyzing and synthesizing data regarding endocrine disrupting compounds. Studies of wastewater treatment facilities across the country have revealed many more pollutants, and frankly, some pretty frightening ones.
Studies of wastewater across the country have discovered the persistence of the following industrial wastes: antimony, mercury, chromium, cadmium, lead, dioxins, flame-retardants, antifreeze, insecticides, and pesticides. Health risks associated with industrial contaminants like these are cancer, birth defects, brain damage, immune suppression, and fertility reduction. And for those who may believe Flagstaff—the hip, clean city that it is—is immune to such accusations, it is worth pointing out that, just last year, the Environmental Protection Agency has sighted our very own Wildcat Treatment Plant with high levels of cyanide and selenium.
While the extremely poisonous compound, cyanide, needs no introduction, readers might not be familiar with selenium. Dr. Paul Torrence, former Northern Arizona University Professor and renowned expert in the field of bio-organic and medicinal chemistry, explains. “Selenium can be beneficial at certain low levels in cancer prevention, but although selenium is required for health, like other nutrients, high doses of selenium can be toxic. Acute and fatal toxicities have occurred with accidental or suicidal ingestion of gram quantities of selenium. Chronic selenium toxicity (selenosis) may occur with small doses of selenium over long periods of time.”
Across the country and around the world, there has been a lot of recent enthusiasm regarding the affects that pharmaceuticals and personal care products have on the level of toxicity in wastewater. In these studies, scientists have found oral contraceptives and other hormones, human and veterinary antibiotics, anti-seizure medication, antihistamines, caffeine, codeine, steroids, fragrances, and bio-accumulating compounds often found in antibacterial products, namely triclosan and triclocarbans.
Triclosan and triclocarbans, in particular, have received a lot of attention in the media lately. Chances are readers have at least one product that contains this compound. It is found in a score of products ranging from anti-bacterial soaps, toothpaste, deodorants, and face washes. Several products that contain triclosan are labeled as “eco-friendly” or “all natural” despite the overwhelming evidence that it is, in fact, a toxin. Here is the scary part. When triclosan reacts with chloride, it becomes chloroform, which is a carcinogen. When it reacts with ultra-violet rays, it forms different, mega-carcinogens, in the form of poisonous dioxins. This is why the Canadian Medical Association has called for an outright ban of triclosan. Did I mention that carcinogens cause cancer?
Preston, remarked, regarding the probability of triclosan in our city’s wastewater, “if they put this up on the Peaks at 12,000 feet, where the UV rays are strong, it will create a PBC ‘brown field,’” which is essentially when the land becomes so contaminated it is incapable of supporting life.
Because our wastewater facilities are not required to test for pharmaceuticals and compounds found in personal care products like these, nobody knows if they are present in the water. Howard Shanker, attorney for the Save the Peaks Coalition and nine citizens who filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service said, “The Forest Service failed to adequately consider the impacts of potential human ingestion of snow made from reclaimed sewer water as required by applicable law (under the National Environmental Policy Act). Our government should not be approving such projects without some sort of understanding of the anticipated impacts.”
Of course there are ski facilities across the country that artificially make snow and some even use a percentage of reclaimed wastewater to do so. What makes Snowbowl’s proposal so unique is the dangerous precedent it sets. If allowed, Snowbowl would be the only ski facility in the world that would use 100% reclaimed wastewater to artificially create snow. Shanker continues, “By approving treated sewage effluent for snow making without adequate analysis, the government essentially turns the ski area into a test facility with our children as the laboratory rats. That is unconscionable.”
The lawsuit was filed in order to force the government to study and disclose the effects of human ingestion of snow made from treated sewage effluent. However, when speaking of a delicate eco-system on a sacred mountain, the concerns go much further than human ingestion.
According to Dr. Springer’s hydrologic analysis of Hart Prairie and the Peaks, and investigations of the rare Bebb Willows that grow there, he made the following observations. The aquifers at Hart Prairie are predominantly filled with snow run-melt from higher elevations. One aquifer drains into another, eventually feeding into the Verde River. The Verde, of course, is already one of Arizona’s most threatened rivers as it is. The water and nutrients it carries literally feeds species spanning nearly 200 miles. The effects of wastewater introduction to this river are not known, as tests have never been done. Beyond Bebb Willows, the Peaks are home to many different endangered species of plants, some of which are not found anywhere else in the world. And of course, while humans might be able to choose to eat the snow made from treated sewage effluent, there are scores of nonhuman animals that don’t have a choice. Dr. Torrence reiterated this point, ““They will just say, ‘don’t eat the snow!’ God help the creatures that have to.”
When I talked to Klee Benally of the Save the Peaks Coalition, he explained to me a moral and political principal called the precautionary principal. In terms of science, the precautionary principal essentially states that “if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment” that action or policy will not take place in the absence of scientific consensus. Benally said that the principal isn’t being considered. He asked, “what kind of safeguards are there to protect against irreparable damage to humans and the environment?” The precautionary principal is in line with this lawsuit because according to the principal, the burden of proof falls on those who wish to implement a particular action or policy. He continues, “We have consistently asked, what happens if people ingest the water?” So far, there have been no meaningful answers.
A friend of mine compared our cultures attitude toward the precautionary principal much like the Golden Rule. “The Golden Rule is a moral principal too, and if you look at our foreign policy or our treatment of workers around the world, we certainly don’t follow that one either.” Dr. Torrence put it in perspective. “Sadly our society and its blinded courts cannot see anything except a smoking gun – when it is too late.”
Another issue all of this raises is responsible water use in the dry, arid, drought-ridden southwest. Dr. Springer asks, regarding the use of reclaimed water on the Peaks. “Why are we exporting water outside of the Flagstaff area to make snow that can’t be melted, recharged, and reused by Flagstaff as a water supply.” Shanker had similar concerns. “If the water is clean, we should be drinking it.”
It has come to light that the e-coli contaminated spinach from last year was packed with ice made from treated sewage effluent, and the tomatoes that were contaminated before that were irrigated with the same water, all graded A+ by their local facilities. We know that cancer has just surpassed heart disease as the leading cause of death in this country. The bigger issues raised by the questions in this lawsuit are more than religious concerns or isolated environmental concerns. They are public health concerns, raising important questions about the ongoing toxification of our total environment.
If our culture is serious about meaningfully moving toward a sane and sustainable culture, this issue is at the crossroads of that transition. Choices that could potentially have devastating effects for people and the natural world need to be thoroughly investigated, studied, and analyzed. In 2009, as the earth’s life support systems are being systematically dismantled by industry and agribusiness, we should not be treating our delicate eco-systems in an experimental fashion, in the name of recreation.
The Forest Service has been accused of not complying with the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) Process when it drafted it’s Environmental Impact Statement, leading to their approval of using the City’s reclaimed wastewater to make artificial snow on the San Francisco Peaks (or Dook’o'oosłííd, or Nuva’tukiyaov; it depends on who you ask). It is likely that before this paper blackens the fingertips of any northern Arizona reader, a District Court judge has already made a ruling on the case.
On July 20th, at the Arizona District Court in Phoenix, lawyers representing the Arizona Snowbowl and the Department of Agriculture, as well as other constituents–literally 6 or 7 people—teamed up against attorney Howard Shanker, representing the Save the Peaks Coalition and 9 concerned citizens. According to the Save the Peaks Coalition, in a press release announcing the case in the summer of 2009, “The use of reclaimed sewer water to make snow, however, was not only repulsive to people who hold the San Francisco Peaks sacred, it raised concerns from skiers and the community over the safety of being immersed in, and even eating, snow made from non-potable treated sewage effluent.”
While many ski resorts make use of a percentage of reclaimed wastewater to make artificial snow, the Arizona Snowbowl would be the only resort in the world to use 100% of this sewage effluent to make snow. It is this kind of exposure that has prompted specific concerns, regarding the impact to human health.
At the Oral Arguments in Phoenix, lawyers defending the Forest Service’s compliance with NEPA in approving Snowbowl’s proposal to use reclaimed water on the Peaks, said that while the filtration process does not test for all compounds, they maintained that because the State graded the water as “A+,” that it is more than safe to be used.
However, as congress delays amendments to the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act from 1976, many scientists are increasingly regarding the standards used to treat and grade reclaimed wastewater as inadequate. “According to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality regulations, treated sewer water can be graded A+ even when it contains fecal matter in three out of every ten samples,” stated Dr. Abraham Springer, Northern Arizona Professor and director of the School of Earth Science and Environmental Sustainability.
More specifically, there is an increasingly large body of scientific data that suggests there are many compounds in wastewater that are either not tested for regularly, or not tested for at all. Both in Flagstaff and around the world, studies of wastewater have revealed compelling evidence of pharmaceuticals, hormones, endocrine disrupters, industrial pollutants, and narcotics.
Across the country and around the world, there has been a lot of recent enthusiasm regarding the affects that pharmaceuticals and personal care products have on the level of toxicity in wastewater. In these studies, scientists have found oral contraceptives and other hormones, human and veterinary antibiotics, anti-seizure medication, antihistamines, caffeine, codeine, steroids, fragrances, and bio-accumulating compounds often found in antibacterial products, namely triclosan and triclocarbans.
When Shanker pushed the lawyers to respond to the fact that many potentially dangerous compounds are simply not tested for, they reiterated that there was not only a filtration process, but the water was also exposed to UV rays and chlorine bleach to purify the water further.
Dr. Catherine Propper, professor of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, is internationally known for her extensive research on the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals. She explained how the UV treatment can backfire, depending on what compounds are present. “When you spray it and expose it to UV, sometimes those products break down. Sometimes the breakdown products are better than their original products, sometimes they’re worse.”
Dr. Paul Torrence, former Northern Arizona University Professor and renowned expert in the field of bio-organic and medicinal chemistry, helped me understand one of these compounds, which is increasingly present in wastewater. Triclosan, and triclocarbans in particular, have received a lot of attention in the media lately. Chances are readers have at least one product that contains this compound. It is found in a score of products ranging from anti-bacterial soaps, toothpaste, deodorants, and face washes.
When triclosan reacts with ultra-violet rays, it forms different, mega-carcinogens, in the form of poisonous dioxins. When it reacts with chloride, it becomes chloroform, which is a carcinogen. This means that some compounds have actually been proven to become even more dangerous, not in spite of adequate filtration, but because of the filtration process itself.
If exposure to a chemical quickly and directly causes cancer, or tumors, or death, we will hear about it in the news. Effects of these chemicals on the endocrine system, as outlined in the book, Our Stolen Future: Are we Threatening our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival?, are, however, more subtle but equally disturbing. “You’re not going to see folks dropping dead because of endocrine disruption,” says Dr. Propper, “but you do see, the way I put it is, you see ‘quality of life outcomes.’”
As explained in Nena Baker’s The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-being, the endocrine system refers to the “complex physiology that controls basic systems of the body from fetal development through adulthood,” regulating such things as “organ function, sexual development, behavioral cues, intelligence, and reproductive systems.” Dr. Propper has demonstrated some troubling effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals in nonhuman animals.
“When we expose animals to individual compounds, we look at genes that are involved in say how you get testes or ovaries. We see a shift in those genes, which suggests that you’re not going to get a properly functioning gonad–but in order to do that study you need to grow the animal up and look at those fertility and fecundity outcomes.” Dr. Propper reiterated the importance of healthy gonads, especially in development. “Your brain function as an adult is a function of how your gonads develop in-utero.”
While those long-term studies have not been done her research has illuminated compelling evidence of skewed sex ratios, whereby 100% or nearly 100% of a given population of animals is female. She has also observed dramatic increases of newborn species in testing areas born hermaphroditic, that is, male fish with evidence of eggs developing in their testicular tissue or male fish that produce female yolk protein. However because scientists obviously cannot test on humans, we can only rely on animal data and the correlations in human exposure.
At a recent forum in Prescott titled, “Recharge of Treated Wastewater to Groundwater: What are the Risks?” Dr. Bruce Blumberg of the University of California at Irvine recently addressed the Citizens Water Advocacy Group and The Verde Watershed Association about the human effects of endocrine disrupters in water. He mentioned an increasingly large body of research indicating a lot of correlative human data, where things like higher levels of a certain compound are associated with different potential endocrine disrupting compounds in humans. “There are now several of those studies out there that show these correlative effects,” says Dr. Propper. “The problem is correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation.”
“So when you go to look for a causative relationship between an exposure and an outcome, there are several steps you have to do. One of them is demonstrate a correlation, but that alone does not give you a causative outcome.”
So essentially, while we have data that demonstrates that exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in nonhuman animals is causing disruption to their hormone systems, Dr. Propper continues, we “cannot do the experiments on humans to demonstrate causation; it’s just unethical. All you can do is look at correlative date. When they look at correlative data for several different outcomes, they do see effects. Some of these are declining sperm counts, increases in development of fat cells, increases in testicular cancers and reproductive anomalies in men. All of these are correlated with increased exposure to certain compounds.”
These national concerns have grown so large that the EPA is currently entrenched in a multi-year study of endocrine disrupting compounds found in this water across the country. The nation-wide study, which will not be completed until 2013, will attempt to answer many scientific questions such as “What effects are occurring in exposed human and wildlife populations?” The comprehensive study will also look at individual compounds, their potencies, dose-levels in different regions, and how can “unreasonable risks be managed?”
When asked what would happen if the courts rule in Shanker’s favor, he responded, “If [the Forest Service] failed to adequately consider the impacts on people who eat snow made from reclaimed sewer water, in their EIS, they [Snowbowl] would either scrap snowmaking using reclaimed sewer water or they would go back and do an adequate analysis of the potential impacts.”
If the decision does not go in Shanker’s favor, he is prepared to file an appeal accordingly. If the judge rules in favor of the Forest Service, Snowbowl owner Eric Borowsky is prepared to start construction of the pipe line and retention ponds immediately, regardless of the EPA’s conclusions in 2013. “If you were a reasonable human being,” said Shanker, “and you’re a federal agency and the US EPA is saying ‘wait a minute, we don’t even know what’s in this effluent. It may be dangerous. We know it has endocrine disrupters.’ If you were reasonable, you’d wait for them to figure out what’s in it before you expose large swaths of the population to it directly, especially children, who are going to be eating it and rolling around in it.”
“Borowsky seems to ignore the fact that the science and the facts don’t support his position and culturally, it offends the sensibilities of 13 of the tribes in the southwestern United States.” Shanker continues, “The regulations say that it’s not suitable for full body immersion or any kind of activity that would get it into your nose or mouth. If you read the regulations accurately, it says you shouldn’t be skiing or falling down in this stuff. They (ADEQ) approved it for snowmaking; they didn’t approve it for skiing.”
Borowsky and others have asserted that the wastewater is safe enough to drink; that in places like Scottsdale and Orange County, CA, residents are actually drinking this water. However, this assumes that wastewater treatment and standards are the same everywhere. “Reclaimed water is not just one homogenous thing,” says Shanker. “It’s a state standard. A+ water in Arizona would be completely different from A+ water in another state, generally. And the uses for it would be different. So if you hear that they drink reclaimed water in LA, that really doesn’t mean anything.” A quick call to Scottsdale confirmed that in fact, because people drink this water, however, it goes through reverse osmosis, which is not required by law, and certainly not in Flagstaff’s water treatment budget.
The concerns surrounding exposure to endocrine disrupters and other chemical compounds do not just stop at wastewater, however, but call into question the long-term safety of our drinking water. During the recent talks with the Flagstaff City Council and the Water Commission regarding the possible sale of potable water to Snowbowl (which was defeated), many people were surprised to learn that reclaimed wastewater is already percolating into our aquifers, and mixing with our drinking water (the mixture that would be taken out was referred to as “recovered-reclaimed water”).
“I think that’s an extremely dangerous precedent,” said Shanker. “I think that’s going to result, over the long term, the degradation of the drinking water quality.” At a Coconino Plateau Water Advisory Meeting several months ago, Jim McCarthy from the Planning and Zoning Commission and a nonvoting member of the Water Commission for Flagstaff asked Dr. Propper if any tests have been done on well water in the vicinity of wastewater. She said yes, that actually they performed tests on the Continental Well here in Flagstaff, and though the numbers were not as high as the tests done on straight reclaimed water, many endocrine disrupting compounds exist.
Dr. Propper sees exposure to reclaimed water as just one of the many places we are exposed to endocrine disruptors. We also absorb these compounds from the food we eat and the air we breathe. “And physical contact,” says Dr. Propper, “your couches, your carpets, your computers that say, have flame retardants in them. There are a lot of different places people pick up these containments….And what most folks are carrying in their body burden, if we look at the animal data, almost certainly has some effect on their endocrine physiology, whether it’s always a negative effect remains to be seen.”
As a scientist, Dr. Propper is only in a position to present her findings to those who make policy. “This is when policy makers have to come in to play and say when is the body of evidence enough that it suggests the stuff in the environment is nasty. The EPA is trying to do that at this point, but it becomes a big policy argument in which a lot of stakeholders have a say.”
Dr. Propper, instead, is a proponent of reducing our “chemical footprint.” “We should be reducing our chemical footprint just as we want to reduce our carbon footprint. We’re not going to stop using fossil fuels or chemicals completely any time soon, but we got to at least really start thinking seriously which ones we use and how much of them we use.”
“Chemicals have, no doubt, caused an improvement in our quality of life in a number of areas. But there is also a push by market forces to use chemicals when we don’t really need them. There might be a place and a rule for tricosan, for example, in hospital settings that could be important.”
“Can we build better plastics that don’t leech chemicals when they break down? Can we do better green chemistry by making chemicals that aren’t going to impact endocrine function? In general can we reduce our chemical footprint in ways that that still allow chemicals to be effective for the good things they do, but not allow for some of the environmental and human health damage that they’re doing?
In 1977, the Forest Service penned an Environmental Impact Statement weighing the pros and cons of Northland Recreation’s initial expansions on the San Francisco Peaks, which were permitted to take place in 1982. That EIS outlined the risks of operating a ski resort in Arizona, stating the resort could, however, be possible with the understanding of the climate here, that there are going to be periods where there is not sufficient snow. It recommended that good management skills be used to account for the potential for inconsistent seasons.
By the time construction was complete, the ski resort was sold again, and after subsequent expansions, Arizona Snowbowl Limited Partnership bought the ski resort from Fairfield Communities in 1992 and immediately expanded and added a few buildings. In 2001, Snowbowl revealed plans for more development and the use of the city’s reclaimed water to be pumped up the mountain and used to make artificial snow.
On August 30, 5:30 PM at Sinagua High School, Flagstaff City Council will hold a special meeting, open to the public, to discuss whether or not to amend Snowbowl’s existing contract obligating the city of Flagstaff to sell 1.5 million gallons of reclaimed wastewater per day to the ski resort for the purposes of snowmaking or, instead, to sell them “recovered” reclaimed water.
There is no debate about whether “recovered” reclaimed water, also called “stored water” is actually “potable,” or water that meets drinking water quality standards, with minimal treatment. According to the AZ Daily Sun on July 3, “The city of Flagstaff currently deposits unused reclaimed water (what’s left over after watering golf courses, parks) in Picture Canyon and in the Rio de Flag, downstream of two wastewater treatment plants.” The effluent run-off mixes then with the fresh effluent from the treatment plants. As the water moves, some of it evaporates, some of it is absorbed by plant-life, and some of it drops through the natural filtration processes of the rock bed, into the Coconino Aquifer. “The water [taken from the aquifer], after chlorination, is potable and suitable for household use.”
Because “the city gets its water from the Coconino Aquifer, Upper Lake Mary, and a little from the Inner Basin of the peaks,” Snowbowl would be tapping into the city’s drinking water supply. “’I think it’s incredible that we should use our groundwater to support a profit-making corporation,’ said Dick Wilson, a plaintiff in the original 1970’s lawsuit to prevent the ski area from becoming a larger commercial operation,” he told the AZ Daily Sun.
In an early August City Council Meeting, City Councilor Art Babbott, realized there was a high level of confusion among the public regarding the idea that “recovered” reclaimed water is actually of drinkable quality. He proposed to change the language on the amended contract to “Potable Water” instead of Recovered Reclaimed Water and the vote lost 3-4.
The existing contract that the city has had with Snowbowl since 2002 would ensure the sale of reclaimed water–treated sewage effluent—directly from the treatment plant to the ski resort. The amended contract proposes that Snowbowl be permitted to tap the “largest city water line in west Flagstaff” by pumping directly from the Coconino Aquifer.
It is important to realize that 7 months before the idea of selling potable water to Snowbowl was even on the table, a few months after a federal appeals court denied tribe’s religious and cultural arguments against plans approved by the Forest Service to use the city’s reclaimed wastewater to make artificial snow, and right after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the decision, the Forest Service and Snowbowl were in court, knee deep in a lawsuit. The suit, brought on by the Save the Peaks Coalition and nine citizens calling for the Forest Service to take seriously the growing public health concerns regarding the safety of using treated sewage effluent to create fake snow. While other resorts make snow, some even from percentages of reclaimed water, Snowbowl is lined up to be the only resort in the world to use 100% reclaimed wastewater to make snow.
According to the Save the Peaks Coalition, “The use of reclaimed sewer water to make snow, however, was not only repulsive to people who hold the San Francisco Peaks sacred, it raised concerns from skiers and the community over the safety of being immersed in, and even eating, snow made from non-potable treated sewage effluent.”
The lawsuit sites the National Environmental Policy Act, which states that the Forest Service is obligated to consider potential impacts the wastewater will have on the quality of the human environment. The Forest Service completely ignored the possibility of human ingestion of snow made from treated sewage effluent in their Final Environmental Impact Statement.
Reclaimed wastewater is not “potable water;” it is not of drinking quality. Reclaimed wastewater treatment plants “take sewage, some storm drain water, and what goes down the kitchen sink or shower drain.” It is loosely filtered to meet current standards in line with the way it is typically used, to irrigate golf courses, city and university parks, playgrounds, and lawns. Wherever the city uses this water, there are clearly posted signs warning citizens not to ingest the water. There has been increased debate in the scientific community regarding the safety of reclaimed wastewater.
“According to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality regulations, treated sewer water can be graded A+ even when it contains fecal matter in three out of every ten samples.” According to Dr. Abraham Springer, Northern Arizona Professor and director of the School of Earth Science and Environmental Sustainability, “The treated wastewater can meet all applicable water quality standards, but still not be as high of quality as precipitation.”
Aside from what wastewater treatment plants do test for, there are substances that are not tested for regularly, or aren’t tested for at all. Studies of wastewater across the country have found compelling evidence of pharmaceuticals, hormones, endocrine disrupters, industrial pollutants, and narcotics.
Dr. Paul Torrence, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Northern Arizona University, published work related to a specific toxin called triclosan, which has received a lot of attention in the media during the last few years. Beyond many common anti-bacterial soaps, it is also found in personal care products like toothpastes, deodorants, and face washes, and incidentally, has been found in increased levels in tests of other cities wastewater facility’s water. When triclosan reacts with chloride, it becomes chloroform, which is a carcinogen. When it reacts with ultra-violet rays, it forms different, mega-carcinogens, in the form of poisonous dioxins. This is why the Canadian Medical Association has called for an outright ban of triclosan.
This level of understanding regarding the nature of triclosan is important when one considers the filtration process sewage water goes through before it meets reclaimed water standards. During the oral arguments at the Arizona District Court hearings in Phoenix on July 20th, Forest Service lawyer John Tustin explained the process. “It’s subject to tertiary filtration and ultraviolet disinfection, and there’s an additional hypochlorite, which is essentially bleach, that’s put in very small amounts to maintain residual disinfection.”
Flagstaff residents will remember in early November 2009, U.S. Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, as well as Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl contacted the Department of Agriculture, which overseas the Forest Service, to inquire about the timeline for construction at Snowbowl.
Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said, according to the AZ Daily Sun, that she had “’come to appreciate the complexity and…have held discussions with representatives from the Arizona Snowbowl and the affected Tribes to explore opportunities to address their interests and resolve this situation in a mutually beneficial manner.’”
By the time spring blew into Flagstaff, the AZ Daily Sun reported, “Secret Snowbowl Talks Break Open.” As it turns out, Flagstaff city officials had been holding secret meetings with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find a solution less offensive to the tribes. Plus, if a new water deal could be worked out with the city, two things happen.
The current lawsuit against the Forest Service, which would force them to more adequately and meaningfully address growing public health concerns about the use of reclaimed water to make snow, would be thrown out. And, to compensate for the extra cost of using potable water, the Department of Agriculture, offered to subsidize the project with a grant funded by taxpayers worth 11 million dollars, though no exact amount has been officially pledged.
“U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl blasted the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” reported the AZ Daily Sun in March. “’we oppose the use of taxpayer dollars to subsidize snowmaking iat Arizona Snowbowl, and we will object to any attempt to secure an earmark or congressional approval of this project.’”
Despite the fact that many tribes, particularly the Hopi, who have consistently opposed snowmaking from any source and developments of any kind on the San Francisco Peaks, the Department of Agriculture said that using potable water to make snow would be, according to majority owner of Snowbowl, Eric Borowsky, “preferential to the tribes.” Given that the Forest Service approved both types of water, when pressed by The Noise as to whether the use of reclaimed or “recovered” reclaimed water mattered personally to Borowsky, he asnswerd, “out of respect for the tribes, I want to use this ‘recovered’ water.”
Borowsky says that a statement by the Hopi Water and Land Commission, signed by the chairperson that the USDA was dealing with said the use of “recovered” reclaimed water was preferential to the Hopi Tribe.
Andy Bessler, Sierra Club’s Southwest Regional Representative for their Tribal Partnerships Program, said, “The Hopi Tribe’s general counsel, Scott Canty who most likely wrote and sent the letter to the City on the Tribe’s behalf was fired in part because of sending that letter. The Obama adminstration did not do their homework and consult with the over 13 tribes who have opposed Snowmaking for years. Also, it is not just the snowmaking that is an issue for the tribes: cutting trees, digging in the dirt and more development is also an issue.”
Besides, the Hopi Water and Land Commission doesn’t make decisions like that, the Tribal Council does. On Thursday, May 20, Flagstaff Water Commission met for the first time to discuss whether or not to amend the contract. Though the decision was tabled to give both the commission and the public more time to consider the options, tribal opposition was clear months earlier. In March, Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director for the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, and a witness for the Hopi Tribe in the lawsuit over snowmaking with reclaimed water told the AZ Daily Sun, “’The Hopi tribe’s position at this point has not changed. As the lawsuit clearly articulates, we are clearly opposed to snowmaking entirely, from any source of water.’” He went on to say that he told the Department of Agriculture all this when they met the preceding fall.
Plaintiff Bucky Preston, a Hopi farmer, agreed, explaining to the Daily Sun that “snowmaking on the San Francisco Peaks would interfere with sacred instructions passed down through Hopi generations about the proper roles of humans and natural forces on the Peaks. “’It’s against the creator to make snow. That’s not humans’ job.’”
Also opposed to snowmaking of any kind on the Peaks is the Havasupai Tribe. Carletta Tilousi, councilwoman for the tribe, added, “’Making artificial snow for economic purposes is still steps toward abusing sacred mountains. Whatever process they use to make artificial snow is still unacceptable to us Havasupai people,’” she said.
Months later at the May 20 Flagstaff Water Commission meeting, Snowbowl and the Department of Agriculture, were still trying to maintain that using “recovered” reclaimed water had the support of the tribes, citing proof from a supposed letter from the Hopi Tribal Council. Hopi Chairman Le Roy Shingoitewa spoke up. “What you are reading is not a letter from the council; we wouldn’t sign it” And Kuwanwisiwma added, “What you have in front of you from the Hopi Tribal Council is not real. Stored water is still offensive to the values that people have about the Peaks.”
Howard Shanker, the attorney for the Save the Peaks Coalition et al., in the case challenging the Forest Services compliance with NEPA in approving wastewater for use on the Peaks said he received permission that morning from Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley to speak for him and the views of the tribe. In his statement, Shanker addressed many ongoing assumptions, and wanted to make clear that the Navajo Nation is opposed to snowmaking, no matter the source of the water.”
Still, in July, the AZ Daily Sun falsely reported that Shirley “told the Agriculture Department in a letter that potable water would be less objectionable to his and other tribes.”
As of today, the Yavapai, Apache, Havasupai, Hopi, and Navajo have passed resolutions denouncing the use of any source of water to make snow artificially. There shouldn’t be any ambiguity regarding how the tribes feel about potable water. “The Navajo Nation recognizes that clean drinking water is sacred and essential for all living beings, especially in the arid Arizona climate, and should not be wasted on non-essential recreational activities such as snowmaking for a limited skiing population.”
Further, a joint resolution, signed by the Sierra Club, Friends of Flagstaff’s Future, Black Mesa Water Coalition, Grand Canyon Trust, and scores of other organizations, makes a similar argument. “We do not believe it is prudent to use potable water to aid a private business outside city limits in their effort to provide limited recreational opportunities to those who can afford them. The City of Flagstaff has a responsibility to its citizenry to provide a long-term, clean, and healthy drinking water source for essential survival.”
Borowsky, on the other hand, maintains that the project is “aquifer neutral.” Most of the water will be returned to flagstaff,” he told The Noise. “From a hydrology point of view it makes no difference.” When asked him to respond to those residents concerned about a private, for-profit corporation, being sold drinkable Flagstaff water resources, Borowsky responded. “Those people making comments just don’t understand hydrology…90% of the water will recharge the aquifer and 10% will be lost to the little Colorado because of the way the mountain slopes on one side.”
On the other side, Northern Arizona University Professor of Geology Abe Springer, claims otherwise. Six years ago he wrote, of using reclaimed water, “The result of using reclaimed water for snow making is that most of it will go directly into the atmosphere as it sublimates…The DEIS indicates that between half and nearly all of the water applied as snow will be sublimated.”
The justification for selling potable water to Snowbowl for the purpose of snowmaking, as both Borowsky and the Department of Agriculture indicated, was to find a less offensive solution to the tribes. It is clear that they have not found that solution.
And, environmentally speaking, it is clear that there is a lack of clear evidence regarding where the water goes. In 2010, as our city moves toward a more sane and sustainable future, the council has important questions to ask. As Mayor Sara Presler stated after the city laughed Nestle out of town for asking if they can have a third of the water that Snowbowl has allotted, water a year, not a day, and provide 50 year round, sustainable jobs, “’This kind of business is dead on arrival,’ Presler said. ‘It doesn’t pass the common sense test.” Does this one?
On August 30th, 2010 close to 800 people packed into Sinagua High School’s auditorium, where the city council held a special meeting to decide whether or not to amend the city’s water contract with the Arizona Snowbowl. Scanning the dark room, from peach colored walls through the scarcely vacant maroon stadium seating, housed a crowd that was not only Flagstaff, but a cross section of northern Arizona, in all it’s colorful glory. There were students, Flagstaff citizens young and old, local social and environmental activists, Native Americans representing regional tribes spanning hundreds of miles. There were snowboarders and skiers, business owners, city staff and members from various boards and commissions.
Nowhere else but Flagstaff will you find a cowboy sitting next to a man in a shirt and tie, next to a man with dreadlocks, next to a Native elder, next to a woman wearing a Crass sweatshirt. Many folks who supported Snowbowl and snowmaking on the San Francisco Peaks wore small signs that said “Vote Snow,” while many from the opposition wore a modified version that said, “No Snow.”
And, it seemed, everyone wanted to speak. The meeting lasted roughly 7 and a half hours, ending about 12:30 am. The Noise observed that roughly 2/3’s of those in attendance were against any amended contract with the Arizona Snowbowl.
Before public comments, Councilwoman Celia Barotz grilled the City’s Utility Manager, Randy Pellatz about future water availability. “Unequivocally can you say that there is no way, without a shadow of a doubt, that this will affect our water supply? How do you reconcile this proposal with the city’s commitment to sustainability? It seems they are not consistent.” Her questions were greeted immediately by overwhelming cheers and applause from the audience. When pressed to answer the first question, Pellatz said “no,” that he could not guarantee that selling drinking water to Snowbowl wouldn’t impact future water supplies.
Similarly Councilman Art Babbot said, “we need to think of this discussion not in the 2- to 5- to 10-year window, but in the 10- to 20- to 100 year window.” These sentiments had been brought up previously when the question of which water to sell to Snowbowl was introduced to the Water Commission the month before. Jim McCarthy from the Planning and Zoning Commission, and a nonvoting member of the Water Commission said that even 100 year plan was not enough – that the city, if they were interested in sustainability, needed to look 500 years ahead. “Flagstaff’s population could easily double in the next several decades,” he explained to The Noise. “100 years is not sustainable.”
On the formal agenda, made available to the public a few days before the meeting, the City Council was to decide on one of three options. A) to replace the existing agreement to allow Snowbowl and the Federal government the option to use either reclaimed water (reflecting the original contract, voted on in 2002) or recovered reclaimed water (which is defined as potable, or of drinking quality). B) To stick with the original contract to provide reclaimed water, or C) to amend the current contract, and sell the Snowbowl drinking water.
If the City voted down the use of drinking water, the current lawsuit, challenging the Forest Service’s compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act in adequately addressing the human health risks of using 100% reclaimed water on the Peaks, thus delaying construction. If the city voted in Snowbowl’s favor, they would start construction immediately and make snow with the city’s drinking water.
However, on the night of the meeting, the agenda reflected a blank option D) which apparently was a space reserved for the city council to take whatever option they desired. At the conclusion of a formal presentation given to the city by Snowbowl majority owner Eric Borowsky, which focused on the creation of jobs, the Flagstaff economy, and the benefits of fire suppression, he said he would support “any other alternative that allows [Snowbowl] to start construction immediately.”
Earlier in the evening, Mayor Sara Pressler stated “all of us would really have liked USDA to be here tonight. I would just like to offer my dislike of their failure to attend, let you know that the council and I through a letter, I did invite Deputy Secretary Merrigan,” Mayor Sara Presler, talking to empty podium.
Many of the people who spoke during public comments in opposition to Snowbowl had a different idea for the option D. Many spoke of completely canceling the contract with Snowbowl and wouldn’t support snowmaking on the San Francisco Peaks no matter what water was used.
In fact many organizations and Tribal governments submitted both independent and joint resolutions that reflected these sentiments. Organizations such as the Sierra Club, Black Mesa Water Coalition, and Friends of Flagstaff’s Future, among 12 other organizations resolutely agreed, “The Department of Agriculture stated that the reason for this new potable water or Recovered-Reclaimed water delivery contract is to appease Native American tribes who object to the use of reclaimed water. However, the Native American tribes, who comprise a large part of our community and economy, have consistently objected to snowmaking in general.”
According to the Hopi Tribal Council Resolution, for example, “The Hopi Tribal Council, representing it’s constituency, has since 1972 opposed any development on the Peaks and reiterates its unwavering opposition against the use of any water for making artificial snow.”
Likewise, The Inter Tribal Council, which includes 20 tribes that reside in Arizona, resolutely “supports the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling to protect the sacred San Francisco Peaks from any proposed ski area expansion and snowmaking.” This ruling was eventually reversed in 2008, and last summer, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Dr. Joe Shirley Jr., President of the Navajo Nation said in his statement titled, “The Sanctity of the San Francisco Peaks,” “Navajos are united in their opposition to the use of any water source to make artificial snow for the purpose of skiing. You may count me first among them.”
Carletta Tilousi of the Havasupai Tribal Council reminded those in attendance, specifically directing her comments toward Snowbowl, “you knew there wouldn’t be sufficient snow every year when you bought the resort,” referring to an Environmental Impact Statement from 1977 which explained that owners should take appropriate management steps that account for inconsistent snow seasons.
Kelvin Long, executive director of ECHOES (Educating Communities while Healing and Offering Environmental Support) asked the city to look at this as an opportunity to heal relationships between the city and regional native tribes and nations. He also mentioned how the issue appears from a human rights perspective, following a statement he made at a previous meeting relating this issue to the fact that the UN had pronounced access to clean water a human right. “Children die every day because they don’t have access to clean water, and here we are discussing water used for recreation.”
Klee Benally, a volunteer at the Taala Hooghan Infoshop and member of the Save the Peaks Coalition also looked at the issue from a human rights perspective. Benally brought up the fact that the city unanimously voted to challenge Arizona’s hotly contested immigration bill, SB-1070. He said canceling the contract with Snowbowl would be another way for the city to align themselves with human rights.
The City Council, after hearing from everybody who wanted to speak, decided to reconvene the following Thursday for a vote. In a move that caught everybody still in attendance by surprise, Mayor Sara Pressler made a motion to ad to the agenda for Thursday, the option of canceling the contract completely. While Art Babbot accused her of playing politics, she said that she thought it would be worth talking about since it came up so much through the public comments, citing the blank option D on the agenda. The council immediately voted down the motion.
On Thursday, the City Council voted to maintain he current contract and not sell drinking water to Snowbowl. Those that voted in the minority were Karla Brewster and Sara Pressler. During this meeting, the public as well as council members were visibly stunned when Alan Stephans, a representative from the Department of Agriculture said that the proposal to use drinking water did not originate from his department as Snowbowl and others have said, but from Flagstaff city staff. There are only speculations as to whom among city staff initially went to the USDA with this proposal.
Attorney Howard Shanker, who is litigating on behalf of individuals opposed to snowmaking with reclaimed water, told the Daily Sun, “’I think the City Council decision today was a step in the right direction,’” he said, “’I think it showed that they’re not just going to roll over for Snowbowl. At least for now, it showed that they’re not only paying more attention to the tribes, but to all people concerned with the allocation of scare resources.’”
“If you attended that hearing,” said Borowsky, referring to the initial meeting at Sinagua High School, “you had the privilege of listening to a bunch of uninformed, and mostly illiterate people…It was the worst display of civic procedure that I have ever witnessed. And I’ve been in AZ since 1963, and have appeared before numerous city councils across the state. It was over 7 hours long – the subject matter was supposed to be about the use of either reclaimed or recovered reclaimed water.”
Other folks disagreed and appreciated the process. Jim McCarthy said, “Public hearings are a messy process, and I’ve been to much worse ones. I think the city and the water commission should get credit for allowing everyone to talk, down to the very last person. So I think the City should get very high marks for listening to everyone on this issue – regardless of which side you’re on. The city listened to the people, and maybe some of the people got a little off the subject, but they were pretty close to the subject and they were talking from their heart. I think the City should get credit for that.”
Concerned citizen Moran Rosenthal-Henn said, “hearing people is not a waste of time. Obviously people are very upset about this, and it is good public policy to listen to the citizens. Just because it wasn’t in Borowsky’s favor doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right action to take from the city standpoint.
The Arizona Daily Sun agreed more with Borowsky, however, in their editorial “Snowbowl Hearing’s a Mockery of Due Consideration,” stating, “Few who witnessed all or part of the proceedings have much good to say about them—and that includes those on both sides of the issue.”
“The thing that I found particularly offensive,” continued Borowsky, “is that the mayor allowed 5 tribal officials to talk about no snowmaking for 10 to 15 minutes each. Now that’s an issue that the US Supreme court and the 9th circuit have already decided over 4 years of judicial proceedings. And yet the mayor wasted every body’s time allowing these people to talk about something the federal courts already decided. To make matters worse, when the chairmen of the city’s Water Commission, Patrick Hurley, tried to speak about the water commission’s recommendations and proceedings, he was cut off. He may have got three minutes, but I doubt it.”
Rosenthal-Henn disagreed. What many people, including the USDA don’t understand is that tribal leaders are equal to a government. They are not the same constituents.” McCarthy added that it’s city policy to give members more allotted public speaking time if they represent 10 or more people. But for me, some of these folks came from hundreds of miles away. The Havasupai, for example, don’t have a road out of their canyon; they have to go by horseback or helicopter. I don’t mind giving them a few extra minutes.”
Then a week later, councilman Scott Overton proposed that the City re-draft the contract with Snowbowl to start the clock over, giving them 20 years worth of water starting now to make up for the lost years between today and when the contract was first signed in 2002. His proposal, he reiterated, had nothing to do with what sort of water they were going to use. After all, he voted against drinking water. He wanted to put some provisions in the contract that he claimed would protect the city among some other details.
None other than Ralph Nader, who happened to be in Flagstaff to speak at
Northern Arizona Univeristy, came to this City Council meeting to show his
support for the tribes and environmental groups. He was also appalled at
the notion of using reclaimed water to make snow. When asked if he had
ever worked on an issue like this before, he told The Noise, “No, skiing
on sewer water is a new phenomenon to me.”
After meeting all the council members prior to the meeting, Nader ducked out early to get ready for his talk at NAU. There he brought the issue up to college students as an example of one local issue that deserves their attention.
“They want to expand this ski resort and they need water. The question is, can they use, what the delicate phrase? Reclaimed water? Purified sewage water? Whatever. The history of this water, by the way is not good, they put it all over the land in Eastern Washington to grow crops…cadmium, lead, huge amounts of heavy metals, and with this they grew crops. I’m not saying it’s analogous, but citizens, environmental groups, and many tribes are against this for plenty of good reasons outlined in your magazine here
(referring to The Noise). This is something you can get involved in right
now. This reclaimed water, where does it go? Even if you’re interested in
tourism, can you imagine advertising for a ski resort that uses sewage
The city voted it down, again deciding to stick with the original 2002 contract, and allowing the current lawsuit against the Forest Service to move forward. Borowsky, on the other hand feels optimistic and is planning to start construction in March. If the Forest Service is found guilty of not following the NEPA Process, Shanker claims that the city would no longer be under contractual obligation to the Snowbowl.
It was an especially beautiful morning on June 16, when at least 15 people participated in a direct action on the San Francisco Peaks that temporarily halted construction of a pipeline on the mountain. Six mostly indigenous youth were arrested during the coordinated action and another was cited for third degree trespassing and released.
On December 1, 2010, Federal Judge Mary Murguia ruled in favor of Arizona Snowbowl Limited Partnership, approving the construction of a 14.8-mile reclaimed wastewater pipeline from Flagstaff to the ski resort, among other developments. The water is to be used at Snowbowl to make artificial snow. While many ski resorts around the world use a percentage of reclaimed wastewater to make snow, many who oppose the plan regard it as an “experiment,” as the resort would be the only one in the world that would use a 100% mixture of wastewater in this way. Prompted by concerns from the scientific community and others who assert the likelihood of health risks associated with the use of reclaimed wastewater, the Environmental Protection Agency is currently conducting a national multi-year study of the water to be completed in 2013.
The case itself, brought on by the Save the Peaks Coalition and nine concerned citizens, is currently under appeal in the Ninth Circuit. Those who engaged in the demonstration are not members of the coalition, nor are they involved in the ongoing lawsuit. The Hopi Tribe has filed their own separate lawsuit citing a first amendment violation of their religious freedoms in association with further development.
The San Francisco Peaks are held sacred to at least 13 regional Native American tribes and the impact of construction has been emotional. A prayer gathering was held at the base of the San Francisco Peaks a few days after construction began. Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly addressed the crowd, “We’ve got to stop the construction.” Kelvin Long, director of ECHOES stated, “We’re going to protect our mountain, we’re not going to allow snowmaking to happen.” Steve Darden of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and former Flagstaff City Council member added a specific message to youth. “In our Hogans and sweat lodges we are offering our prayers, we’re relying on you young ones to step up.”
And so they did.
On the morning of the action, as the full moon faded and the sun rose, two demonstrators chained themselves to the wheel well of a large excavator while two pairs of women sat back-to-back deep inside the six-foot-trench, bound to each other by the neck with U-locks. The action occurred a few miles up Snowbowl Road where construction had been in progress since May 25.
The first to respond to the scene was Snowbowl. The security vehicle, a blue Mercedes, screamed up and down Snowbowl Road apparently trying to locate those involved in the action. By 6 AM more than 15 armed agents arrived on the scene, as well as the Coconino County Sheriff’s Department, City of Flagstaff Police, and the FBI.
At the same time a group of at least eight demonstrators gathered at the bottom of Snowbowl road, blocking access. Five demonstrators wore white hazmat suites in a symbolic “quarantine” of the resort, stretching banners across the road that read, “Protect Sacred Sites” and “Danger! Health Hazard – Snowbowl.” Caution tape was stretched across the width of the road along with other objects, forming a makeshift blockade.
The demonstrators engaged in a multi-varied approach to what is very much considered a multi-layered issue. The complexity of the controversy was illustrated in the diversity of demonstrator’s chants, echoing from the base of the mountain, from those locked to construction equipment, and from voices deep from within the trenches. “Protect Sacred Sites, Defend Human Rights!” “No desecration for recreation!” “Stop the cultural genocide! Protect the Peaks!” “Human health over corporate wealth!” “Dook’o’osliid, we’ve got your back!”
One of the women in the trench, bound to another by the neck described some of the conversation that took place as the police concentrated their efforts on the men chained to the excavator. One said to the other, “Don’t you feel kinda small in this deep trench?” To which one of the women paused, then responded, “Not when I’m doing big things.”
By 7:30, assisted by county Sheriffs, the Flagstaff Fire Department began aggressively cutting demonstrators from their various lockdown devices. “The police’s use of excessive force was in complete disregard for my safety. They pulled at my arms and forced my body and head further into the machine, all the while using heavy duty power saws within inches of my hand,” said Evan Hawbaker, one of the demonstrators chained to the excavator.
Rather than negotiate, as the demonstrators were cut, it was clear that the police and fireman preferred to use scare tactics. “We don’t want to cut your arm off,” repeated one of the fireman several times to which Hawbaker finally responded, “I don’t want you to cut my arm off either.” Hawbaker said the fireman looked dead serious when he said, “well, we will if we have to.”
Hawbaker and Kristopher Barney were chained to the same excavator. The device that bound them to the machine is referred to as a “lock box.” Both arms go through a PVC pipe and from the outside, that’s all anybody can see. Inside, however, their hands gripped a metal rod; a chain around their wrists was also connected to the rod with a strong karabiner. There are many variations of this lockbox, which is commonly seen in nonviolent direct actions around the world.
Hawbaker said after holding on to the rod for a while that his hand became numb. The firefighters used a Sawzall to cut the PVC pipe lengthwise. When the blade hit the metal rod, it rattled the chain violently and Hawbaker described the warm feeling that trickled down his arm. “I thought it was blood; I thought they cut my fingers, “ he said. Those who cut us out endangered our well being ignoring the screams to stop. They treated our bodies the way they’re treating this holy mountain.”
“I’ve done this quite a bit and never have I feared for my safety like this before,” said Nadia Del Callejo, one of the women locked down in the trench. “The whole thing was disorganized and dangerous. There was no communication.”
One of the underage women in the trench described an action taken in which one police officer would attempt to stand them up while another officer moved the other demonstrator another way. Because U-locks bound the women by the neck, they were choked. “Nobody even bothered to ask what it would take to get us out voluntarily. Finally they just started hurting us,” said Ms. Del Callejo. “I’m here to protect the mountain, I said, and you’re hurting me. You’re choking me.” The police responded in a way that did not sugar coat their lack of experience in dealing with nonviolent demonstrators. “That’s your own fault.”
“Our safety was prioritized second to Snowbowl’s demands. I was not aggressive. My lock was sawed through, inches away from both of our heads, secured solely and recklessly by the hands of a deputy. During the process, we were repeatedly asked to chant to reaffirm our consciousness. The police’s response was hasty, taking about ten minutes in total—it was dehumanizing,” said Hailey Sherwood, one of the last demonstrators to be cut out.
One at a time, as demonstrators were removed from their locking devices, they were treated by paramedics, and arrested for trespassing. Those two demonstrators that were bound to minors were also charged with “contributing to the delinquency of a minor,” and another charged for “endangerment.”
On the Monday after the lockdown, the Arizona Daily Sun published an editorial reaction entitled, “Monkey-wrenchers Marginalize Cause of Native America.” Besides the fact that the term, “monkeywrenching,” is entirely misrepresented in the editorial, as it is well documented that demonstrators took great care not to damage any machinery, the editorial itself reads more like an attempt by the paper to, in fact, marginalize the history of social and environmental movements.
The editorial explained that demonstrators’ comparison of their actions to Rosa Parks is a false analogy on the grounds that when Ms. Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, segregation was already illegal. Said the editorial, “civil rights activists were seeking to uphold the law.” Here it sounds like the writers of the editorial would not have found the actions of Ms. Park to be meaningful, courageous, or ethically sound if she had acted before segregation laws existed. It would be a curious task for the writers to name one social movement in the history of the world that did not result in illegal actions and arrests. “Throughout history, acts of resistance and civil disobedience have been taken by young and old against injustices such as this. This action is not isolated but part of a continued resistance to human rights violations, to colonialism, to corporate greed, and destruction of Mother Earth,” added Del Callejo.
The editorial goes on, “The Snowbowl protesters are focusing on a religious dispute and don’t have the law on their side.” If the last 40 years of lawsuits have revealed anything, it should be clear that confronting a Eurocentric court system that is structurally incapable of making connections between environmental and human rights concerns has been a challenge for native people since the controversy started. If the Daily Sun thinks the only issue here is “a religious dispute” that has nothing to do with the environmental integrity of the mountain and is not connected to the cultural survival of our native neighbors, they have truly exposed how out of touch they are on this issue. “The Holy San Francisco Peaks is home, tradition, culture, and a sanctuary to me, and all this is being desecrated by the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort,” said one of the underage demonstrators.
And this ill informed paragraph in the Daily Sun concludes. “It’s no wonder the public in general has failed to rally to their cause.” As much as it is clear that the authors of the editorial would prefer that those against further development and desecration on the San Francisco Peaks are part of some lunatic minority fringe group, it is simply not true. Even in the city council meetings related to choosing a water source for Snowbowl last summer, at least ¾ of those hundreds of people in attendance submitted pubic comments in opposition to development, most of which urged the council to cancel the water contract with Snowbowl all together. On the day of the demonstrations, furthermore, if the community did not support the actions of those arrested on June 16, they would still be in jail.
One of the demonstrators who temporarily blocked access to Snowbowl Road that morning reflected on the severity of a jail bond neither he nor anyone he knew could afford. “Oh man, I thought, Ned’s going to jail and I don’t have any money and I don’t know any body that has any money.” Within an hour of sending out a few simple text messages, they raised over $3,000, which was more than enough to pay for all six to be released. And the donations poured in the rest of the day. The extra money was given back, and the money used was paid back.
Also, a Facebook page, originally set up to let people know what was going on with the arrests, became a forum for support. It got over 300 members in less than 24 hours.
Furthermore, early in the morning of the demonstrations, as soon as word got out on KNAU about what was happening, folks from all over Flagstaff came by and offered their support. One demonstrator remarked, “One woman came by with her daughter. She gave us all a bunch of Gatorade and offered to cook us all meals if it went on throughout the day. Many other folks grabbed signs and joined in the rally at the bottom of the mountain.” Furthermore, activists began to call from all over the country, as far away as Hawaii. Specifically, a group from New Mexico said they were on their way to Flagstaff. Inspired by the demonstrations; they wanted to help.
“How can we be trespassers on our Holy Site?” questioned Barney. “I do not agree with these and the other charges; we will continue our resistance.”
Since May 25, the owners of Arizona Snowbowl, with the blessing of the US Forest Service and the Flagstaff City Council have laid nearly six miles of a 14.8-mile wastewater pipeline and have clear-cut over 40 acres of rare alpine forest. As construction continues, a lawsuit centering on the human health impacts of using reclaimed wastewater to make snow artificially is currently under appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court. The Save the Peaks Coalition and nine concerned citizens will be able to make one oral argument on the issue, likely by the end of September, before a decision is made.
While many resorts use a mixture of reclaimed wastewater and potable water to make snow artificially, Snowbowl is slated to be the only resort in the world to use 100% reclaimed wastewater to make snow. That is, if it is successful in court. If Snowbowl is not successful in court, the pipeline will have to be removed.
“Snowbowl is aware of this. They know that whatever they’re doing is at their own risk,” said attorney in the case, Howard Shanker. “They actually filed for a motion to expedite [the appeal process], but the Ninth Circuit turned it down.”
Recently, on August 19, the Hopi Tribe filed a separate lawsuit against the City of Flagstaff. “The lawsuit states that the City’s contract to sell 1.5 million gallons of reclaimed wastewater per day to Snowbowl is illegal because it violates several Arizona laws that govern the proper use of reclaimed wastewater” and will “result in unreasonable environmental degradation.”
Stressing the importance of this case to the Hopi people, Leroy Shingoitewa, the Chairman of the Hopi Tribe. “The health and safety of the Hopi people is indistinguishable from the health and safety of the environment — protection of the environment on the San Francisco Peaks is central to the Tribe’s existence.”
This summer, a sense of urgency has accompanied what opposition groups refer to as desecration of the San Francisco Peaks, which has resulted in mass organizing, demonstrations, protests, rallies, marches, and an outpour of community support for those who have been arrested. Said one activist who wished to remain anonymous: “The notion is clear: if you want to protect the mountain from further expansions, don’t write letters, don’t sign petitions, stop asking yourself ‘why government agencies, from the city to the feds, are fighting so hard for an unpopular project’ and take action!”
Shortly after the rumble of diesel machinery tore into the mountain, affinity groups began to arrive, setting up self-sustained base camps. An affinity group is a small group of activists, united under a common cause, who work together on direct actions. By mid-August, 26 known basecamps had been established within the legal camping area of Forest Service land on the San Francisco Peaks. Since June 16, there have been 26 people arrested in various direct actions and protests, both on the Peaks and in the city of Flagstaff.
While at least half of those groups are from Flagstaff, other supporters, both native and non-native, reside elsewhere on the Colorado Plateau and in the state. Eight people who spent nearly 100 days and nights to protect Glenn Cove, a burial site held sacred to several tribes near Vallejo, California arrived in early August. The occupation of the cove, called Sogorea Te, resulted in a “cultural easement” which set a legal precedent guaranteeing that the Yocha Dehe and Cortina tribes will have legal oversight in all activities taking place on the site. Motivated by the success of their own victory, they came to support those taking similar action on the San Francisco Peaks.
In mid-July, the “Peaks CookShack” was established in a legal camping area near Snowbowl “to support other encampments and affinity groups by providing access to available food, gear, first aid, information, and other supplies being offered and dropped off by supporters and community members.” CookShack is committed to remain on the mountain indefinitely.
“A few folks from Tohono O’odham came and hung out with us for the first weekend we were here,” said Nadia Del Callejo, speaking on a beautiful Sunday morning at CookShack toward the end of July. “They did a prayer for rain and protection on the mountain. Literally right when they left, it hailed for two days straight. Construction had to stop because there was a foot of hail on the ground. In July.”
Sitting on a log, looking up toward swaying aspen, Ms. Del Callejo continued, “There are moments like that up here; irregardless of the kind of hopelessness folks feel. Up here, you just can’t feel it. I mean, you see the destruction every day and it does get to you, but there is also this other part of it, where you understand fully how important it is to do the work and to find a way. We know we’re going to win; we don’t know how we’re going to get there quite yet, but we have faith — whether it’s through the lawsuit or through people taking direct action, or by prayer — they’re not going to put sewer water up here.” She paused and smiled. “We just know.”
Ms. Del Callejo was arrested in June, along with five other people, for an action whereby demonstrators locked themselves down to excavators and to each other, deep inside wastewater pipeline trenches. The action halted construction for four hours and resulted in a reemergence of the issue in local and national media (read my full coverage of that, here). More supporters converged on the Peaks. Weekly prayer gatherings, drum circles, and self-guided tours that bared witness to the clear-cuts continued.
August 4th though the 9th was organized as a “Week of Action,” which included multiple marches throughout Flagstaff including protests and rallies in front of City Hall, the Coconino County Forest Service Office, and High Desert Investment (the construction company contracted by Snowbowl). On August 7, police aggressively disrupted the Protect the Peaks march, which drew more than 100 people, arresting six people, including several known organizers.
The next morning, nine people formed a blockade across Snowbowl Road. Some demonstrators locked themselves to steel drums full of concrete, while others were bound to each other. More than 50 armed agents showed up and used industrial saws, toxic chemical degreasers, and a jackhammer to break apart the blockade. The human blockade delayed construction that day for 8 hours. It also quelled any preconceived ideas that opposition to development would go away.
Snowbowl General Manager JR Murray appeared a few hours into the action. To say that he was mad would be to paint an incomplete picture. As the sound of industrial saws pierced the quiet at 9 thousand feet, he stood with his arms crossed on the side of the road, watching police drag demonstrator after demonstrator away from the scene; the look on his face could only be described in one way: he was dumbfounded.
It could be compared with the same facial expression pro-development folk had during the last 40 years of Flagstaff city council meetings concerning development on the Peaks — when native elders spoke in their own language about the mountain, about desecration, with streams of tears running down their cheeks. That dumbfounded look, that look that begs the question: if skiers and snowboarders had to make due without expansions, without the pipelines and the clear-cuts, would the prospect of that reality bring tears to their eyes?
“The only choice for us is to take action against those who threaten Indigenous cultures, the environment, and our future. It’s frustrating that we had to do this in order to make this point clear,” stated Jenna Tomasello, who took part in the action.
Stephen Zavodynik, also arrested during the blockade elaborated: “We decided to take matters into our own hands and you can too. Whatever you feel is sacred, defend it with all your heart and take a risk, because our future generations will not forgive inaction.”
“For us, our actions are self-defense,” said Ms. Del Callejo after she was arrested for the third time this summer. “And everyone has that right. I am not afraid of what will happen to me if I protest, what I am more afraid of is what will happen if I do not stand up.”
Weekly Prayer circles and other events are scheduled to take place every weekend until construction stops.