Sacred consultations

Arizona Daily Sun Staff Reporter

Jill Torrance/Arizona Daily Sun Peaks District Ranger Gene Waldrip and Coconino National Forest Archeologist Heather Cooper are frequently consulting with Native American Tribes about the proposed expansion of the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Area.
Since June, the Forest Service has been quietly sounding out officials from 13 Native American tribes about a controversial plan to use reclaimed water to make artificial snow and spend millions of dollars upgrading skiing terrain and guest facilities at Arizona Snowbowl.
"Consultation" with the tribes is mandated by federal law because the San Francisco Peaks are considered a "traditional cultural property" and will likely be added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Forest Service's Snowbowl project automatically triggered "government to government" closed-door meetings because tribal officials are upset with plans to use recycled water for snowmaking and to increase commercial activity on lands considered sacred.

"The complexity of making decisions on public land is tremendous. And in this geographic area, it's complicated again by the attachment to the land by Native Americans. But it's part of the job. A big part of the job," said Peaks District Ranger Gene Waldrip.

The Snowbowl wants to improve guest services, construct a snowmaking system to cover 205 acres of ski terrain and develop nearly 70 acres of new ski trails.

Native American officials meeting with the Forest Service on the Snowbowl issue give officials high marks for reaching out and working with the tribes.

But given Snowbowl's shaky economic base due to poor snow winters and its impact on the Flagstaff economy, some Native American officials don't expect the consultation process to amount to much.

"Well basically, they are saying we're going to go ahead about it, but how can we go ahead without making you any madder or how can we move ahead without stepping on any more of your toes?" said Steven Begay of the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Office.

Waldrip said that the Arizona Snowbowl project is a "proposed action" and that information from consultations with the tribes, as well as the mountain of comments from the public, will be taken into consideration when the Forest Service releases alternatives to its current proposal.

It could take two years before a final Snowbowl plan is approved, and it may be far different than the one currently proposed, Waldrip said.

Begay said despite misgivings about Arizona Snowbowl, the tribes see the face-to-face meetings as the best way to make their case against snowmaking.

"We're trying to use this consultation process as a way to voice our concerns to areas that we do not have direct control over," Begay said.

"We give them all of this information and hope they will make the right decision to preserve these places for the benefit of our beliefs and the preservation of our culture but ... in reality, everything, even the government, is driven by economics," Begay said.

For many Navajo and Hopi, the Peaks play a role in their cosmology and daily religious practices. During the consultation process, the tribes have tried to impress upon the Forest Service the key role the Peaks play in their spiritual beliefs.

The Forest Service acknowledges the Snowbowl plan will have "adverse" effects on the tribes, but believes their concerns can be "mitigated" through negotiation and "information sharing."

"I hear a lot of rhetoric that the Coconino National Forest is not seeking out the input of the Native Americans or are receptive to working with them. I hear that a lot. Some people have that perception. So, hopefully, we can inform the public that there is a lot going on. We work very intently and closely with the Native American community and the tribes," Waldrip said.

Coconino National Forest archeologist Heather Cooper said that consultation with the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe on a range of projects under way in the national forest is a regular occurrence.

The Snowbowl project has prompted public meetings on the Hopi Reservation (see related story) and briefings of chapter house officials on the Navajo reservation, she said.

"We send out a letter annually to our 13 affiliated tribes to inform them of projects for the coming year. Then we meet with those various tribes ... actually tribes are getting inundated with consultations with so many national forests and parks. So we're trying to streamline the process," Cooper said.

Begay said visits to western chapter houses by the Navajo-liaison officer from the Peaks Ranger District shows the Forest Service is listening to tribal concerns.

Meanwhile, Navajo and Hopi cultural officials hope the consultation process will convince the Forest Service to abandon the Snowbowl plan and eventually shut the ski area down.

"Ideally, that would be the Native American perspective. That place is so sacred, it's like a chamber off the Vatican, if you want to put it into a western perspective. You wouldn't want to build a tennis court on top of the Vatican, would you?" Begay asked.

There is a precedence for this view. Native American opposition to the White Vulcan pumice mine on the northeast slopes of the Peaks contributed to its eventual closing.

Snowbowl plans to use treated wastewater for artificial snow is a serious problem to Native Americans and has been a focus of the consultation issues, said Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office.

"Health is a very significant issue and there is always the morality of recycling these wastes to create artificial snow," Kuwanwisiwma said.

The "negative aspects" of the water, even though purified to a high degree, makes it unsuitable to spray on the Peaks, he said.

When reassured that the recycled water posed no health risk, the Hopis still objected, citing arrogance of people making snow, something reserved for spirits to do.

"I don't think anything will appease the Hopi people on this. The Forest Service asked, 'What if there is a proposal to dig a well and use the water for artificial snowmaking?' But the elders said no, it's still manmade," Kuwanwisiwma said.

"It's something so emotional to the Hopi people. The Peaks are part of our everyday lives. It's not just a significant landscape, it carries the essence of our life as well," he added.

Begay said snowmaking, ski trail lighting and more people using the mountain are the top issues surrounding the Snowbowl upgrade.

Though issues divide them on Snowbowl, the relationship forged between tribes and the Forest Service is a long-standing one, said Kuwanwisiwma.

"Our office has had a very long and very good relationship with the Coconino National Forest. So I have confidence that they can relate to some of the issues brought into this process. If it was any other agency, maybe not. But I know a lot of these people ... we know them very well. They are known out here (in Hopiland) and have a good record of consultation," he said.