“Nuva’tukya’ovi is our Mount Sinai. Why can’t the forest service understand that?”- Bucky Preston, Hopi Farmer
The Arizona Snowbowl is having an eventful summer. A nearby wildfire had the ski resort temporarily shut down, a maintenance issue recently closed their gondola, and now its relationship with the local Native American community has made international news. The Guardian spoke with the local Native American tribes and the ski resort to see why things have become so tumultuous.
Nuva’tukya’ovi, which is home to the Arizona Snowbowl, has been sacred land for Native Americans for over two thousand years. The ski resort is situated on the San Francisco Peaks, which is home to an extinct volcano and collapsed caldera that is surrounded by a multitude of summits. For Native Americans, the area is home to “Indigenous origin stories, ancient shrines and a place where ceremonial and medicinal plants are gathered.” The land was considered so sacred that Indigenous people refused to live there in order to protect the land. The following tribes have opposed the ski resort since its opening in the 1930s: “Pueblo of Acoma, Fort McDowell Yavapai; Havasupai; Hopi; Hualapai; Navajo; San Carlos Apache; San Juan Southern Paiute; Tonto Apache; White Mountain Apache; Yavapai Apache, Yavapai Prescott, and Pueblo of Zuni.”
A key point of contention is Arizona Snowbowls snowmaking methods. With limited water options around the Flagstaff area, the ski resort uses reclaimed water that originates from Flagstaff’s sewage system. The Arizona mountain uses 1.5 million gallons of reclaimed Grade A wastewater, and this method has been duplicated by the Yellowstone Club in Montana and Soda Springs Mountain Resort in California. Native Americans believe that this reclaimed water snowmaking method is desecrating a holy site of theirs. Before it was approved in 2005, an environmental review process testing found that “hormones, antibiotics, antidepressants, and other pharmaceuticals.” The Snowbowl claims that they depend on this method though, and there isn’t enough natural water to maintain their snowmaking operations. Before its approval of the reclaimed water snowmaking system in 2005, the inconsistent weather had Arizona Snowbowl on the ropes. If their new master development plan were to get approved, the following additions are planned for the Snowbowl: multiple new lodges, night skiing, two new lifts, replacement of the Sunrise, Hart Prairie I, and Humphreys lifts, sixty-one acres of new terrain, expanded glade options, and capacity upgrades to the Grand Canyon Express and the Arizona Gondola. In terms of summer operations, the Snowbowl is aiming to add an extensive mountain biking network, new hiking trails, a zipline, and a space for outdoor concerts. In 2021, a snowmaking expansion project was halted due to a mistake from the Forest Service, giving hope for the tribes to halt Snowbowls future plans. In order for their plans to proceed, a new memorandum of agreement must be reached. Before agreeing to the memorandum though, the tribes want the Forest Service to conduct an independent environmental review. Annette McGivney of The Guardian described how the situation arose:
“The historic preservation staff for the Hualapai Nation, discovered that a memorandum of agreement that the forest service signed with the Hualapai and other nations as a stipulation of Snowbowl’s 2005 development plan had expired six years earlier, and the nations were never notified. This put the forest service out of compliance with section 106 of the federal National Historic Preservation Act, a provision of the law that deals with sites of cultural or religious significance to Indigenous peoples. Section 106 requires the federal government to consult tribes before carrying out any development in these places and, if there are negative impacts, to develop a memorandum of agreement with tribes outlining mitigations“
From my perspective, it’s clear that Native Americans have a right to be angry at the Arizona Snowbowl. It doesn’t sound like the ski resort has heeded its concerns, and it is still trying to grow the ski resort within its current boundaries. On the other hand, the Snowbowl is by far the best ski resort in the state, and losing it would be a massive loss to the Arizona ski industry and the adjacent town of Flagstaff. In 2019, the Snowbowl contributed $53 million to the Flagstaff economy and employed seven hundred people. Perhaps the Snowbowl could hire more Native Americans at the resort to teach the historical significance of the land to guests, and have more tribal members in leadership positions. It’s a very messy situation though, and both sides have legitimate points. Unfortunately for the Snowbowl, the climate and water situations in Arizona aren’t going to improve anytime soon. Image Credits: Arizona Snowbowl