Skis carve a path of controversy in Arizona

A new snow park feeds a rising appetite for recreation. But to native Americans, a sacred site is desecrated.

Dividing two worlds, the pearl-white loft of the San Francisco Peaks hovers as a dwelling place for powerful earth gods, at least in the eyes of native peoples living on the nearby Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations.

But for athletic denizens of urban Flagstaff, those same mountains rising overhead have come to mean something else: a rare opportunity to alpine ski on the arid Colorado Plateau.

Today, those differing views, one modern, the other ancient, have created a clash of cultures that now reverberates across Western Indian country.

"The Peaks are part of me. They speak to who I am as a Navajo. It's hard to put into words how a landmark can represent the essence of your soul, but it does," says Joe Shirley Jr., president of the 300,000-member Navajo Nation, the largest tribe in the US. "It sickens me to think of what the US government is allowing to happen in those mountains."

A recent decision by the US Forest Service to allow expansion of a commercial ski area and use of treated sewage water for artificial snowmaking in the San Francisco Peaks has incited an emotional debate about spiritual desecration.

It pits those, such as Mr. Shirley, who demand that natural native religious sites - including mountains, valleys, lakes, and caves - be strictly protected versus others who want public wildlands made more accessible for mining and recreation.

While some tribes claim the threats have escalated in the West because of policies governing energy development and mining advanced by the Bush administration, the conflict has taken a variety of forms in recent years.

For instance, in the Lewis and Clark National Forest of Montana, the Blackfeet and neighboring tribes claim that proposed oil and gas drilling would harm areas where sun dancers still pray.

In the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota, as well as Glacier National Park of Montana, tribes say broken treaties have plundered sacred lands.

During the 1990s, a dispute erupted between mountain climbers and plains tribes at Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming, prompting the National Park Service to impose restrictions on alpinists so they didn't disrupt religious ceremonies. Today, the state is wrangling over an attempt to rename Devil's Tower "Bear Lodge," its traditional reference.

This latest debate centers on the San Francisco Peaks, the highest mountain range in Arizona and among four groups of summits considered holy by the Navajo and Hopi. The National Congress of Native Americans, the most powerful confederation of tribes in the US, says the slopes are no different than the edifice of the National Cathedral.

Outrage over downhill skiing at the resort, Snowbowl, extends back to the late 1930s. Two decades ago, activists here fought proposed infrastructure improvements at Snowbowl all the way to the US Supreme Court, arguing that the existence of the ski area prevented them from practicing their religion. The Supreme Court upheld an appellate court ruling in favor of the ski area.

When Coconino Forest Supervisor Nora Rasure recently announced that she would allow snowmaking to proceed over opposition from 14 different tribes and following two years of agency review that attracted a record 10,000 public comments, it lead to outrage, protests in Flagstaff, and a candlelight vigil.

At the core of the objections is a process for snowmaking. Because the manufactured snow will be made of recycled water drawn from a treatment facility in Flagstaff, where wastewater from homes, hospitals, and even funeral parlors is processed, the Navajo and Hopi believe it contains impurities that will taint the mountain.

Ms. Rasure and her staff agonized over what to do, holding 41 meetings in local native communities and making more than 200 phone calls to consult with tribal leaders. "This was not an easy decision for me; in fact, it is probably the most difficult decision I have had to make in my career," Rasure said. "While I must carefully consider impacts to traditional values, I am also charged to make decisions about uses of the national forest that meet other needs of the American public."

Snowbowl has long been an attractive winter destination for skiers from Phoenix, attracting more than 150,000 annually, depending on snow conditions. Indeed, the day after Rasure's decision was announced, the Arizona Republic newspaper sided with the Forest Service.

Forest supervisor Rasure admits that part of her decision was driven by economic considerations. At stake are more than 400 ski-related jobs in Flagstaff.

On other potentially contentious issues, relations between the Forest Service and tribes have been cordial. In recent months, Rasure's staff rerouted a proposed Utah-Mexico hiking trail away from a side of the San Francisco Peaks used by native vision questers.

Recognizing the value of the mountain to Indians, the Forest Service also recently petitioned to have the area designated a "Traditional Cultural Property" under National Historic Preservation Act to protect it from mining.

Navajo president Shirley said he wasn't surprised about the irony of the Snowbowl decision, but like native people and local environmental groups, he is ready to fight. He is incredulous that the Forest Service justifies its position by arguing that Snowbowl occupies just 777 acres in a mountain forest covering 74,000 acres - 1 percent of which is directly impacted by skiing. Shirley claims that US public land management agencies approach their decisions with a naive understanding of native religion.

By federal law, the tribes have 45 days to register a formal appeal of Rasure's decision with the Forest Service's regional office in Albuquerque and after that parties have the option of suing.

"We're definitely going to challenge this decision." Shirley said "But at the same time we're going to be walking the halls of Congress. We haven't given up hope to get this stopped, not yet."

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