The Big Steep

The only thing slick about Arizona Snowbowl is the snow

Last winter was the driest in 35 years and the resort only managed to squeak out a 25-day season in February and March.

Because of the low overhead, Borowsky maintains, he was able to put the operation into hibernation. The 1992-93 and 1994-95 seasons had been very profitable, 1993-94 was average, and this season already promises to be good.

"So we had built up a lot of cash reserves and also paid down debt," he says. "Last year, although we would have preferred to make a lot of money, we didn't lose a lot of money."

San Francisco Piqued
At 12,643 feet, Mount Humphreys is the tallest of the San Francisco Peaks and the highest point in Arizona.

The Navajo revere it as one of four sacred mountains that mark the borders of their ancestral lands, and they make offerings to the supernatural beings who live there.

The Hopi believe that the peaks are home to the kachinas, the spirit messengers who bring rain. The Hopi look to the peaks every day for religious inspiration.

According to more recent legend, the peaks were first skied on in 1934 when a handful of young blades was disappointed by the lack of snow at the Flagstaff winter festival and went off to look for some. They found it on Hart Prairie, an open meadow just below the present-day site of the Arizona Snowbowl. Three years later, the Flagstaff Ski Club raised enough money and enough gumption to set up a primitive rope tow powered by an automobile engine. And a year after that, the ski area opened, the third or fourth in the country. Next year will see its 60th anniversary.

However, Snowbowl was not built in the best place on the peaks for skiing, but rather in a place that people could get to with 1930s technology. There is no water there. Most ski areas face north, away from the sun; Snowbowl faces due west, and although the bowl up top helps hold the snow, the trails below treeline can't be widened much lest they let in too much sunlight, which can be withering and blistering even in January.

The first chair lift went into operation in 1962, and for at least 10 years, Snowbowl remained a tiny backwoods ski hill. In the early 1970s, however, an out-of-state developer saw the potential for growth and presented a master plan to the Forest Service. The Flagstaff environmental community was taken by surprise, but fought back so hard that the developer packed up and left the ski area in receivership.

In 1974, the ski area was rescued by a Flagstaff ski-shop owner named Norm Johnson, who put up a half-million dollars to buy it.

Johnson's expansion plans were less ambitious than his predecessors', but they still generated 11 administrative appeals (protests) and written statements representing nearly 9,000 individuals. When his Environmental Impact Statement was approved by the Forest Service in early 1979, it allowed him to clear 50 acres, rebuild the existing chair lift and add two more.

Just seven months earlier, President Jimmy Carter had signed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to protect traditional Native American beliefs, and a coalition of environmentalists and Native American tribes, most notably the Navajo and Hopi, seized upon it and filed suit to stop development.

Throughout the appeals and the Native American suit, Snowbowl was enjoined from any construction.

"All the time I was under stay of implementation," says Johnson. "I couldn't touch a rock, I couldn't touch a tree."

While the case dragged on, Johnson claims he was paying $300,000 in interest on a new chair lift he had purchased but could not install, and up to $30,000 a month in legal fees. Johnson won his case in federal court; a court of appeals upheld the decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court let the appellate decision stand. Johnson finally received his use permit in 1982, but he was financially and emotionally drained, and sold the resort to Fairfield Communities for $4 million. They kept him as manager.

As a compromise measure during the legal battle, the Forest Service designated 14,650 acres outside the ski-area boundaries as wilderness, forever proscribing development there, and limiting the ski area forever to 777 acres.

Fairfield also built a new lodge and paved the seven-mile road up to the resort, which brought new growth pains.

"It used to be the main complaint about Snowbowl was road access," says general manager J.R. Murray, who was hired by Fairfield and still runs the day-to-day operations. "When we paved that, the number-one issue became lift lines."

The environmental discontent didn't go away. In October of 1987, a self-styled eco-terrorist named Mark Davis climbed over the San Francisco Peaks with an acetylene torch and cut the bolts on several ski-lift towers. He called to warn the resort and then sent a letter in which he threatened to "chain the Fairfield CEO to a tree at the 10,000-foot level and feed him shrubs and roots until he understands the suicidal folly of treating the planet primarily as a tool for making money."

The letter rehashed the environmental and Native American issues of the preceding years, and then, as a further joke, the writer claimed he belonged to an organization he called EMETIC, or the "Evan Mecham Eco-Terrorist International Conspiracy."

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