Tribes Lose Snowmaking Battle

The religious objections of Indian tribes are not sufficient enough to stop a ski resort from using reclaimed sewage water in the San Francisco Peaks mountain range north of Flagstaff, Ariz.

By not considering the tribes appeal, the Supreme Court effectively upheld a previous decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals –- which permits the Snowbowl resort to make snow.

The appellate court had previously ruled that snowmaking would not have a negative impact on the “spiritual fulfillment” of several tribes, who see the mountain as sacred ground, The Arizona Daily Star reported.

According to The Arizona Republic, a coalition of Navajo, Hopi, Hualapai, Havasupai and Apache tribes said that the plan to make artificial snow out of reclaimed wastewater would violate their religious freedom.

“Unfortunately, the court tended to take an ethnocentric point of view in dealing with the facts and issues, which is not what they’re supposed to do,” Howard Shanker, the attorney who represented the tribes, told the Arizona Daily Star.

The resort plans to pump water up from a water treatment plant in Flagstaff, which will require some 15 miles of pipe to move the water from the plant to the hill and additional 12 miles to distribute it along the slopes. The system, which will also require a 10-million gallon retention pond, will cost $12 million and should be in operation by October 2010.

According to the Arizona Republic, Snowbowl first began planning snowmaking in the late 1990s. The U.S. Forest Service, which owns the Coconino National Forest where Snowbowl is located, approved the plans. But the tribes sued the Forest Service, saying that the snowmaking would upset deities and that treated sewage would desecrate holy sites.

In January 2006, a federal judge ruled that the plan was acceptable. The coalition and environmental groups appealed, and the ruling was overturned in March 2007 by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Snowbowl’s owners asked that the case be reviewed by a larger panel, and the decision was overruled 8-3.

“Giving one religious sect a veto over the use of public park land would deprive others of the right to use what is, by definition, land that belongs to everyone,” Judge Carlos Bea wrote in the majority ruling.

Finally, the coalition petitioned the Supreme Court, which refused to see the case — effectively upholding the final Circuit Court decision.

Read more here, here and here.

Sources: The Arizona Republic, The Arizona Daily Star and Sierra Club

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