Flagstaff, Arizona residents were out in droves on February 10, to enjoy a sunny and unusually warm winter’s day in the shadow of the San Francisco Peaks. Most were aware of Thursday, February 9’s ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which gave the green light once again for controversial snowmaking with reclaimed water at Arizona Snowbowl, the ski resort perched on the mountain. In fact, most people in Flagstaff – whether they’re activists, skiers or just ordinary citizens – formed strong opinions on the long-standing matter years ago.
The opinions don’t fall out neatly between Native and non-Native residents, or even between skiers and non-skiers. Some Native people ski on the mountain. Others see snowmaking with reclaimed water as a desecration; some non-Natives see it the same way. There are even avid skiers who can’t stomach the idea of using reclaimed water to make snow.
“I kind of have a slanted view of it because I’m pro-Native American and I’m pro- the fact that it is a sacred place,” said Phyllis Hogan, a non-tribal Flagstaff resident who owns Winter Sun Trading Company in the heart of downtown. Hogan has been a trader and Indian art dealer as well as a traditional herb collector for three decades. Referencing the San Francisco Peaks, she said, “I don’t even pick a plant up there, out of respect for the Native people. There are a lot of medicinal plants up there that would be good to pick, but I don’t pick them.”
Hogan says she’s no longer a member of the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce because they support Arizona Snowbowl’s activity on the Peaks.
“I think the city of Flagstaff has no guts because they won’t just break their contract [with Snowbowl] and see what happens,” she said. “I think it’s extremely, extremely disrespectful to the tribes who were here way before we were. We never asked them if we could come here. We never asked them if we could do this. The Forest Service should be ashamed of itself.”
Flagstaff has hosted numerous talks by biologists who point out the physical dangers – to humans and the environment – of using reclaimed water for snowmaking. Northern Arizona University scientists Catherine Propper and Paul Torrence have studied wastewater and discovered evidence of pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, antibiotics and hormones including endocrine disruptors.
The courts have largely dismissed those risks.
But even Gavin Boughner, a lifelong Flagstaff resident and avid skier and snowboarder who works at the Flagstaff outdoor store Peace Surplus, says he has a problem with the quality of the water.
“It’s proven that it contains hormones,” he said. “Scientifically, I’m against it. But my paycheck depends on it.”
As a skier, Boughner said he’s not excited about artificial snow, no matter what water is used to make it.
“It stinks to ski on,” he said. “It’s heavy snow. At the Colorado ski resorts, they use it minimally. Here, in a winter like this, it would be used to make the whole slope skiable.”
Asked for his response to the Snowbowl decision, Hopi artist Ed Kabotie settled immediately on one word: “Koyaanisqatsi,” he said. “Life out of balance. That’s what it is.”
Kabotie is an artist-in-residence at the Museum of Northern Arizona. He said in his view, the issue is not so much about the skiing. He doesn’t ski, but if he did, he might even ski at Arizona Snowbowl. “I probably would,” he said.
For Kabotie, it’s about respect. “To me, there’s not any regard for what is sacred,” he said, “just the lack of attentiveness from the court itself shows a disregard. That’s the shameful thing.”
He says his understanding of the word koyaanisqatsi – which was also the title of a 1980s movie based on the concept – rests on the idea that “we’ve come to a place in life where there’s almost no turning back. We’ve crossed a line in a sense, a reprobate condition that there’s not a human remedy for.”
He believes the 9th Circuit decision – and the plans for Snowbowl to plow head with artificial snowmaking despite the opposition – is “another in a series of injustices, or infractions.”
Kabotie points out that societies the world over have experienced cycles of boom and bust – and the way he sees it, a lack of reverence for once-sacred ideals commonly feeds the collapses. The lack of regard for the sacredness of the San Francisco Peaks, he fears, fits right in.