Arizona Testbowl: Denying Human Rights and Experimenting with the Ecological Integrity of the San Francisco Peaks

By Kyle Boggs In Northern Arizona, on the slopes of the state’s highest peak, stands an on-going controversy illuminating deep cultural divides. Here, human rights and environmental justice stand in opposition to enhanced skiing recreation. As the dominant Euro-American culture shifts its perception of progress to achieve a just and sustainable future, the fight to save the San Francisco Peaks from contamination and further development stands at the crossroads of this transition.

From its 12,643-foot summit on Humphrey’s Peak, one can look to the north and see Red Butte and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. On particularly clear days, Navajo Mountain is visible in southern Utah. Veering east, the little Colorado Gorge splits the plateau below the Hopi Mesas. To the south, one can easily spot the Mogollon Rim and gaze past the Red Rocks of Sedona, clear to the Verde Valley, and even further beyond, to the rugged mountain ranges of central Arizona. Scouting east is the 11,400-foot tall White Mountains near the New Mexico border, on Apache lands.

Photo Credit: Kyle Boggs

It is no wonder that thirteen regional tribes, whose cultural identities and cosmologies are intimately tied to the land, regard the San Francisco Peaks as sacred. Especially for the Hopi and Diné (Navajo), the natural integrity of the San Francisco Peaks is deeply important to cultural and spiritual survival.

For the Hopi, the San Francisco Peaks, or Nuva'tuk-iya-ovi, is where the Kachinas live. Among many other important roles, these deities are honored because they bring snow, which nourishes the land and ensures the success of Hopi crops. For the Diné, the Peaks, or Dook'o'oosłííd, represent one of six sacred mountains and one of the four cardinal mountains--commonly referred to as the four directions. The San Francisco Peaks, as well as Mount Blanca to the east, Mount Taylor to the south, and Mount Hesperus to the North, make up the boundaries of Dinetah, the ancestral homeland of the Diné people.

In the 1970s, environmental groups and Arizona residents joined with regional native people in the fight to protect the San Francisco Peaks. Together, they fought off developers who sought to build ski villages, condos, golf courses, and gated communities. To stave off the development, countless efforts were made by the Native people to explain the cultural and spiritual significance of the mountains. In 1974, Navajo medicineman Fred Kaye said, "The mountain […] is a teacher. It teaches people the way of life. If the white man desecrates, ruins, or develops the mountain, its teachings will be lost to the people."

However, for those who say the Creator has bestowed upon them the responsibility of honoring and protecting the land, the law of the United States of America and the state of Arizona has not always made protecting the peaks an easy task. Despite numerous lawsuits citing violations to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the Endangered Species Act, a major expansion to the ski area, in terms of lifts and runs, took place in the early 1980s.

Today, Arizona Snowbowl Limited Partnership, a company owned by wealthy investors on the east coast, operates the ski area under a special use-permit issued by the Forest Service on 777 acres of land bordering the Kachina Peaks Wilderness Area.

For the last decade, Snowbowl has sought to continue its expansions, and, perhaps more controversially, to ensure a more dependable ski season for the company by purchasing 1.5 million gallons of reclaimed sewage effluent per day from the city of Flagstaff to make artificial snow throughout the winter season.

Photo Credit: Kyle Boggs

So, on September 21,, 2009, to fight the use of effluent to make snow by the Arizona Snowbowl, and because the courts had consistently dismissed arguments to protect the San Francisco Peaks on the grounds of religious and cultural integrity, the  grassroots group called the Save the Peaks Coalition and nine concerned citizens chose a different strategy: the group filed a lawsuit, calling for the Forest Service to consider the growing public health concerns regarding the safety of using treated sewage effluent to make artificial snow.

According to the Save the Peaks Coalition, "the use of reclaimed sewer water to make snow [...] [is] not only repulsive to people who hold the San Francisco Peaks sacred, it raise[s] concerns from skiers and the community over the safety of being immersed in, and even eating, snow made from non-potable treated sewage effluent." Furthermore, while many ski resorts use a percentage of reclaimed water in their snowmaking process, Snowbowl would be the only resort in the world to use 100% reclaimed water to create snow.

The suit cites violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the Forest Service to consider any potential impacts the wastewater will have on the quality of the human environment. However, the Forest Service has, to date, ignored the possibility of human ingestion of snow made from treated sewage effluent in its NEPA mandated Final Environmental Impact Statement.

Snowbowl’s General Manager J.R. Murray and others assert that the reclaimed water is not only safe enough to drink, but that it is cleaner than the water that falls from the sky. The problem with this claim is that the current standards for treating and grading treated sewage effluent are not very stringent.

"According to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality regulations, treated sewer water can be graded A+ even when it contains fecal matter in three out of every ten samples," says Dr. Abraham Springer, Northern Arizona Professor and director of the School of Earth Science and Environmental Sustainability. "The treated wastewater can meet all applicable water quality standards, but still not be as high of quality as precipitation."

Additionally, Murray’s claim does not account for pollutants for which wastewater treatment plants rarely or never test. Studies have found pharmaceuticals, hormones, endocrine disrupters, narcotics, triclosan, triclocarbans, insecticides, pesticides, industrial wastes such as antimony, mercury, chromium, cadmium, lead, dioxins, flame-retardants, and antifreeze in wastewater. Some health risks associated with such contaminants are cancer, birth defects, brain damage, immune suppression, and fertility reduction.

Howard Shanker, attorney for the Save the Peaks Coalition and the nine citizens who filed the lawsuit against the Forest Service says, "By approving treated sewage effluent for snow making without adequate analysis, the government essentially turns the ski area into a test facility with our children as the laboratory rats. That is unconscionable."

Another question raised with the snow making controversy concerns responsible water use in the arid southwest. Dr. Springer asks, "Why are we exporting water outside of the Flagstaff area to make snow that can’t be melted, recharged, and reused by Flagstaff as a water supply?"

Mr. Shanker shares similar concerns. "If the water is clean, we should be drinking it."

Klee Benally, a Diné activist and member of the Save The Peaks Coalition, wonders, "what kind of safeguards are there to protect against irreparable damage to humans and the environment? We have consistently asked, ‘what happens if people ingest the water?’"

So far, there have been no meaningful answers to such questions from either the U.S. Forest Service or Snowbowl.

Yet, as our culture attempts to move toward a sane and sustainable society, asking these types of questions concerning environmental and human rights is only going to become more important.

Contributor's Biography:

Kyle Boggs is a freelance writer who calls Northern Arizona his home. He teaches English and feminist theory at Northern Arizona University. His work is regularly featured in The Noise, a local and independently produced monthly publication, where he writes about local social, environmental, and bicycle related issues. His work has also appeared in Z-Magazine and High Desert Journal. Read more from his blog at:, or more of his published work at