Skiers at the Arizona Snowbowl resort don’t seem to mind the fake snow, generated from reclaimed sewage.Tom Marcinko
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — For 10 years, a coalition of Native American groups and environmental activists in this Western mountain community has tried to stop a ski resort from spraying artificial snow — made from wastewater — on land that 13 tribes consider sacred.
Until now, it’s lost every one of five major legal actions against the U.S. Forest Service, which first approved the sale of wastewater to the Arizona Snowbowl resort in 2004. Since the winter of 2012, the privately owned Snowbowl has prospered through the cold but dry winter season with the frozen flakes, manufactured by snow-making machines on the San Francisco Peaks, 11,500 feet above sea level.
The cultural argument — as one activist put it, “What part of ‘sacred’ don’t you understand?” — has failed in the legal arena. Now the Hopi tribe is trying to stop the faux snow with arguments that could carry more weight outside Native American culture. Tribal officials are arguing that the snow is bad for the environment and for people too.
Last month the Arizona Supreme Court greenlit a Hopi lawsuit against Flagstaff, which so far this season has sold to Snowbowl about 134 acre-feet, or about 44 million gallons, for $77,645. The contract allows for a total of 552 acre-feet, or about 180 million gallons, to be moved through a 15-mile pipeline that Snowbowl built through the forest in 2011.
The case is a potential landmark decision on balancing modern land use with traditional beliefs, said Brennan R. Lagasse, who wrote his master’s thesis on the Snowbowl controversy and now teaches a course on sustainability at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village, Nev.
“These are the kinds of issues we need to figure out,” Lagasse said.
The land in question is not on the Hopi or any other reservation, but is part of the Coconino National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service has allowed the area to be used for skiing since the 1930s, but the Hopi and a dozen other tribes consider the land part of their religious heritage. The Hopi date their settlement of the land back to the year 1150, and note the USFS has designated the land as Traditional Cultural Property.
Michael Goodstein, the tribe’s lawyer, based in Washington, D.C., said his client is going ahead with the litigation, though he’s not sure when it will come to trial.
The Hopi face an uphill fight. Skiing and snowboarding are big business in Flagstaff. So even before the snow blowers started to blast, Snowbowl foes took aim at public opinion, relying heavily on a yuck factor.
“Arizona Snowbowl starts making fake snow from treated sewage ... and it’s yellow,” read one activist press release. It made national headlines too.
Snowbowl general manager J.R. Murray sighs when the subject comes up. When the blowers went online in 2012, he said, there was some discoloration, but it came from rust inside the pipes.
“It’s a nonstory,” he said.
Signs posted around the resort warn skiers.Tom Marcinko
The fake flakes passed inspection by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality in December. The agency did demand more signs to warn against letting the icy crystals pass your lips. The purple “Do not drink” signs, which tout the use of recycled water as a conservation measure, are easy to spot.
On a Jan. 30 visit, the snow looked nothing but white, from both the bottom of the ski-lift slope and the top of the beginner’s slope. The slopes, bar and restaurant were busy with skiers and snowboarders. The resort opened for the season the day after Thanksgiving and counted 41,000 visitors for the holiday season alone.
“We’ve done quite well this year so far,” Murray said. Without the snow blowers, “we would still be closed.”
A white-haired Iowa couple at Snowbowl said they’d heard about the snow-making controversy but were unfazed.
“He’s happy” he got to ski a hill steeper than any in Iowa, Cheryl said of her husband, Jay. He said the man-made stuff seems more slippery than the real thing. But he didn’t notice any strange colors.
Employees at the resort were thankful for the fake snow, noting closures in previous years when Mother Nature’s snow was a no-show. One employee at the resort-owned hotel on US 180-W, at the bottom of the winding mountain road that leads to the resort, sounded cynical about tribal claims that hinted at the tension between the two sides.
“They wouldn’t object if it was a sacred casino,” he said, referring to several Native American–owned gambling spots in Arizona.