Saving the San Francisco Peaks

The San Francisco Peaks

The San Francisco Peaks

Plans are underway to lay down 14 miles of pipeline up to the top of the San Francisco Peaks where a 10 million gallon wastewater reservoir will be created to generate artificial snow. Why? To increase the number of annual skiable days at Arizona Snowbowl.

The Peaks, which rise to 12,000 feet above Flagstaff, Arizona at the Western edge of Navajo lands, are regarded as a sacred place to thirteen indigenous tribes in the Northern Arizona region.

The Hopi believe that ancestral kachina spirits live atop the mountain, and cause the rain and snow to fall—and that natural snowmaking cycles may cease if the kachinas witness humans manufacturing snow. Yavapai-Apache Chairman Vincent Randall describes the San Francisco Peaks as one of the “sacred places where the Earth brushes up against the unseen world.” And the mountain’s traditional Navajo name is Doo’ko’oosliidd, which means “Shining On Top,” and has traditionally been accessed by medicine men for the collection of herbs for healing ceremonies.

The ski area, which was originally built in the 1930’s and expanded significantly in 1979 despite protests and lawsuits, has been the site of years of struggle for tribes including the Hopi, Navajo, Havasupai, Hualapai, Yavapai Apache, and White Mountain Apache.

Opponents of the wastewater plan filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the National Environmental Protection Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act. The case moved through the courts until a 12-judge 9th Circuit Court ruled that the artificial snowmaking system was innocuous because Navajo tradition is merely a “subjective spiritual experience,” thus not entitled to legislative protection.

Citizens filed a second lawsuit asserting that the federal government did not properly and adequately review the potential environmental and public health risks associated with the use of artificial snow. In December 2010, U.S. Federal Judge Mary Murguia ruled that the U.S. Forest Service did, in fact,adequately consider the safety of using reclaimed water to generate artificial snow. Murguia’s December 2010 decision is now on appeal before the 9th circuit.

The San Francisco Peaks are to the Colorado Plateau tribes what the most revered sanctuaries are to people of Western monotheistic traditions: a holy place. To contaminate the Peaks with the artificial snowmaking system would be equivalent to building a 10 million gallon sewage pool on the floors of Westminster Abbey. Can this be considered a “subjective spiritual experience”?

One activist explains her reaction: “This last court decision for us told us that our cultural belief, our spiritual belief, is not a valid religion—it’s subjective spiritual feelings. For traditional people who have grown up with our identity and who carry on these ways of life since the beginning of time and want to ensure that our children have these spiritual connections as well, to be told that your ways of life, your culture, is a spiritual subjective feeling, is one of the most painful feelings that I think anybody could ever feel. That you believe, what your ancestors have fought for, what they’ve carried on, what they’ve died for, is not valid.”

Stay tuned to for updates on the efforts to protect the Peaks from contamination.


  1. Buck Manhands on August 31, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    We have a photo/media packet available publicly on facebook here:
    -with love from the mountain.

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