Snow Clouds Over the San Francisco Peaks

Last week, the chair-lift conversation at Arizona Snowbowl in Flagstaff repeatedly turned to whether the ski area would be allowed to cut new trails through the trees on its northernmost flank, or whether a letter-writing campaign by a ragtag group of environmentalists and traditional Native Americans would bring the plan down.

The skies were blue and the sun hot, but storm clouds were forming just to the east over the Navajo Nation. The current expansion plans stem from a hard-won 1979 Environmental Impact Statement and a Native American religious-rights court case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Snowbowl operators wanted to expand; the Native Americans, who hold the mountain sacred, and local environmentalists wanted the resort to go away. The resulting compromise locked the ski area into finite boundaries and designated the surrounding Coconino National Forest as wilderness, forever undevelopable, barring an unlikely act of Congress.

But the 1979 agreement also allowed the resort to build within its set boundaries. Until now, however, none of Snowbowl's operators had ever turned enough of a profit to do so.

The current management, headed by a Scottsdale businessman named Eric Borowsky, has followed the book in its efforts to expand, and is in the process of preparing the required legal document called an Environmental Assessment which logs the environmental and cultural implications of development. Environmentalists question whether the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the land the resort falls on, should require a more involved and expensive Environmental Impact Statement, or rely on one that was done 20 years ago.

Borowsky's group says it has extended itself to Native American tribes and listened to their concerns. It claims the Hopi have already signed off on the project. But the Navajo are not so easily swayed.

"It's not against skiers and Snowbowl," says Roger Henderson, facilities manager for the Navajo Nation. "It's for the mountain."

"It seems like we give them an inch, but they keep on taking and taking," says Timothy Begay, a cultural specialist for the tribe.

What we've got here is a cross-cultural failure to communicate.
Arizona Snowbowl is one of the oldest ski areas in the United States, and one of the worst situated. When it opened in 1938, it landed at its present location because that is where the road could get to. But it has no water for snowmaking, and its slopes face south and west, exposed to the melting southwestern sun.

By the late 1970s, a Flagstaff businessman named Norm Johnson decided to expand into the more melt-proof north face of the peaks, but he was hit with a withering environmental and Native American legal crossfire.

The Hopi regard the San Francisco Peaks as home to their deities; the Navajo consider them a spiritual and geographical boundary to their homelands; and other tribes, including the Apache, attach a spiritual significance to the mountain. They sued Johnson under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. And although Johnson eventually won the 1979 decision, his legal bills dragged him down, and he sold it to a large corporation that didn't do much better. Borowsky's group bought it in 1992 with the understanding that it would be allowed to build within the limits set by the 1979 EIS. From his standpoint, a deal's a deal.

"It's not like we're saying we'd like to encroach into the wilderness, give us 800 more acres and we'll double the ski area," he says. "We just want to do what the EIS allows us to do."

The Forest Service regulations governing ski areas on federal lands calculate the number of skiers an area can safely handle, and then have formulas to tell how many chair lifts, ski slopes, lodge dining tables and parking lots it would take to accommodate that number.

Snowbowl is permitted for 2,825 skiers per day, and allowed 206 skiable acres; it now has 137 and wants to expand to 203. It has as much parking space as it is allowed under federal regulations and closes down lift-ticket sales when those lots are full (while fighting off locals looking for a place to park on the mountain to go cross-country skiing or tubing).

"The majority of our skiers are intermediate skiers," says Borowsky, but the majority of terrain is for advanced or beginner skiers. And so Snowbowl hired a consultant to carve out 66 more acres of intermediate terrain.

Though environmentalists describe the new trails as a 66-acre clearcut, ski area manager J.R. Murray says, "It's already a series of open glades, so all we're going to do is go in and use the natural openings and make them wide enough for people to ski through."

Besides, since the trails face southwest, large holes in the forest canopy would only make it easier for the sun to melt the snow.  

And though the environmentalists worry about species listed as threatened and endangered since 1979, most notably the Mexican spotted owl, the Snowbowl management has already hired consultants to survey all the owls (the nearest owl, they claim, is a mile and a half downhill from the resort), tree densities and tree diameters.

Such surveys are required by federal regulation.
In an age when environmental groups come to the fray with a good command of the biological and legal facts, the Flagstaff Activists Network seems equipped with little more than a strong sense of outrage.

"It's the peaks," says Roxane George, who describes herself as an Earth First! organizer.

A former New York attorney who has been in Flagstaff since August and is lending her legal assistance to the network huffed at New Times that it wasn't clear whether Snowbowl intended to cut its new slopes on south-facing or west-facing mountains. If she invested an hour one afternoon, she could take the expansion map that was published in a local newsweekly, drive to Snowbowl and see for herself.

"Most of the people who are really against it don't seem to read the whole sheet," says Steve Jenner, a snow ranger for the Forest Service.

Sharon Galbreath, the Flagstaff representative of the Sierra Club, however, has a firm grip on the issues, a command of forestry, and a season pass to Snowbowl.

Although she admits that the current expansion plans are better than the old ones on the books, she says, "There are new issues. There have been changes in the law, specifically the Mexican spotted owl's been listed, and they keep trying to say there aren't owls above 9,000 feet."

The EIS, Galbreath points out, "is 20 years old. What makes anyone think that any Forest Service decision is written in stone in perpetuity? The Forest Plans under which they log hundreds of millions of board feet in this region can be redone every 10 to 15 years.

"The Sierra Club's been officially pushing the Forest Service to do a winter management plan, a large-scale one for the entire San Francisco Peaks," she says. Such a plan would ostensibly look not only at downhill skiing, but at other winter sports, at snowplay, at roads, and so on.

"The Forest Service has a responsibility to provide recreation as part of their mission," says J.R. Murray, the Snowbowl manager.

The local Native American community would still like to see the resort go away, and has gathered more than 300 signatures of traditional Navajos protesting the expansion.

("We have 150,000 skiers; I could get you 150,000 signatures," says Eric Borowsky.)

"I got involved because my beliefs are traditional," says Klee Benally, a 22-year-old Navajo living in Flagstaff. "I just see our church being desecrated. I don't think anybody of any faith could stand by and let it happen."

His father, Jones Benally, a Navajo healer who was involved in the 1970s battle, adds, "We can buy the Earth, but we don't own it. It owns us."

The Hopi cultural preservation officer could not be reached for comment by New Times.

"We've gotten official things from the Hopi tribe saying they're more than willing to work with us on the project," says the Forest Service's Steve Jenner.

The White Mountain Apache tribe sent a letter of concern about Snowbowl to the Forest Service. The tribe owns and operates Sunrise resort, the other major ski area in Arizona.

But the extent of the cultural disconnect might best be spelled out by the conflicting Anglo and Native American descriptions of a meeting staged on the Navajo Reservation in Tuba City by Congressman J.D. Hayworth so that the Navajo and the Forest Service and the Snowbowl management could talk over issues.

The latter two groups claim that the meeting was disrupted by Anglo activists and thereby unproductive.

"There were no Anglos there, it was Navajo people," says tribal cultural specialist Timothy Begay.

According to the Navajo, the Forest Service and Snowbowl made their pitches to the Navajo elders and medicine men.

"Here they're brought into a meeting, and when it came time for them to speak, the meeting was over," says Roger Henderson of the Navajo nation. "They were really ticked off."

Snowbowl management feels that it will be able to complete its expansion under the auspices of the 1979 court decisions. But in this New Age, new laws protecting Native American religions have given Native Americans more political clout.

"It's the Forest Service's opinion that we'll be able to comply with [the new laws] because there are no sacred shrines inside the ski area or no cultural properties inside the ski area," says J.R. Murray. "But they're laying a blanket on the whole peaks. The Record of Decision from '79 says that everybody agrees the mountain is sacred, but we can co-exist. The law does not preclude more than one use of the land."  

"That was the first mistake they made," counters Steven Begay of the Navajo Nation. "They wanted indications of sacred sites on this mountain, and we can't say X and X are sacred sites on the east side, or the top is a sacred site. The mountain was put there for the people, not just part of it, so it's our duty to protect this place for the benefit of the world, for our people and everyone else."

Meanwhile, Snowbowl management had hoped to install a new chair lift this summer and move another one to a new location on newly cut trails.

"It's doubtful now if we'll do it this summer," says Borowsky. He's a thoughtful man, with the business sense to wait and see which way the battle will go before he opens his wallet.

"We're trying to do this as low-key and with as little controversy as possible; otherwise we'd be asking for more," says Murray. "Certainly in the fifth fastest growing state in the country there's a demand for skiing, and we've agreed to keep the ski area its current size."

"The ski area will find a loophole," says Steven Begay.
Though the lawyers are not yet lined up, the fight may end up in court.
Says Timothy Begay, "I'm pretty sure we'll have to go that far."

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address:

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