Three activists were charged in federal District Court in Flagstaff, Arizona, today with disrupting work in a U.S. Forest Service office, following a protest they staged there over snowmaking with treated effluent on the sacred San Francisco Peaks.
Navajo activist Klee Benally issued a press release before he turned himself in to face charges filed December 6 by the Coconino National Forest. Benally said he and other activists visited the local Forest Service office on September 21 in a peaceful protest of the agency’s approval of snowmaking with treated sewage at Arizona Snowbowl. The resort is permitted to operate on Forest Service land within the San Francisco Peaks.
“On September 21, 2012 more than a dozen Flagstaff community members peacefully delivered letters to address the U.S. Department of Agriculture's policy on sacred places,” Benally wrote. “Not only are these federal charges absurd, they are an attack on freedom of expression."
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Stearns, the prosecutor in the case, told Magistrate Judge D. Thomas Ferraro during the initial appearance that there was a bit more to the protest than the delivery of letters.
“A bucket of some kind of organic substance was dumped on the floor. The organic substance is of unknown origin to this date,” he said. The five-gallon bucket is rumored to have contained treated wastewater.
"The irony is that the [Forest Service] has authorized Snowbowl to spill more than 1,500,000 gallons of treated sewage effluent per day onto a rare and pristine alpine habitat,” Evan Hawbaker, one of the activists, wrote in the press release. “Yet they feel it’s appropriate to call hazmat when a pail of wastewater is allegedly poured onto their polished tile floors?"
About a dozen anti-snowmaking protestors, many of them from the local Protect the Peaks Coalition, displayed banners in front of the federal court building during the court appearances, drawing honks from many locals and stares from holiday tourists.
“They’re forcing us to eat shit as we ski now,” said Louise Benally, a Navajo activist, as she held one end of a large banner. “That’s how far greed has taken us in the town of Flagstaff.”
Inside the courthouse, four activists – three of whom turned themselves in and appeared in court Tuesday – were charged with two counts each of “threatening, resisting, intimidating, or interfering with any forest officer engaged in or on account of the performance of his official duties in the protection, improvement, or administration of the National Forest System.” Each count carries a maximum sentence of up to six months in prison, a $5,000 fine and probation lasting up to five years.
The three activists who were in court – Benally, Dawn Dyer and James Michael Anders – were released pending trial on the condition that they stay away from offices of the Coconino National Forest. Dyer and Anders are also banned from Arizona Snowbowl’s permit area within the Coconino National Forest; Benally is allowed to visit the area so he can continue to practice his faith. Their next court appearances are scheduled for December 27. The fourth defendant, Hawbaker, was reportedly out of town when the citations were issued and did not appear in court.
The plan to make snow out of reclaimed effluent has triggered nearly a decade of protests since it was first proposed. As of this year, the pipe has been buried between Flagstaff and the mountain, and environmental and tribal activists have lost numerous court battles to try to kill the plan.
Activists inside and outside the courtroom today said they see irony in the timing of the Forest Service charges, which were filed the same day USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled a report on sacred sites. The report relies heavily on the San Francisco Peaks as an example of sacred sites policy that has proved disappointing to tribes:
“We heard many concerns about the impacts to [American Indian and Alaska Native] peoples’ use of and access to sacred sites stemming from the agency’s authorization of recreational activities, including rock climbing, interpretation, outfitting and guiding, and off-highway vehicle use,” it reads. “Specifically, we heard numerous concerns with the Forest Service’s decision to allow the use of reclaimed wastewater for creating artificial snow at the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Area in the San Francisco Peaks from many who strongly urged the agency to reverse this decision. … We recognize that this decision has had profound impacts on the agency’s
relationships with many [American Indian and Alaska Native] people and communities, but we hope this review and the changes that will result from it will begin to address some of the concerns we heard … and that better, more consistent, and more meaningful consultation, communication, and understanding between the agency and [American Indian and Alaska Native] people will be necessary if we are to avoid similar circumstances in the future.”
Jon Nelson, patrol captain for the Coconino National Forest, attended the court proceedings but directed media questions to the Department of Justice.
Asked after the court proceedings about the simultaneous issuance of the citations and the USDA report, Stearns seemed caught off guard: “The complaints took a while to prepare and were signed by the judge on December 6, 2012,” he said. “There’s no relationship between that date and anything related to the USDA.”