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.

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Michael Kiefer