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The Battle for the San Francisco Peaks

Saving Sacred Spaces

by RANDALL AMSTER

You might not be aware of this news from northern Arizona, since the reporting of it in the media has been less than robust, but in recent weeks there have been dozens of arrests at the Snowbowl ski expansion site in the San Francisco Peaks, just outside of Flagstaff. Following years of rancorous public debate and coming on the heels of circuitous court proceedings, the developers of the site have begun excavation in order to expand the slopes and lay a pipeline for the bringing of wastewater to make artificial snow on the mountain.

Can you say, “yuck” (expletive implied)? Shortsighted thinking, combined with unaddressed health risks and insufficient environmental impact assessments, threatens to turn these Sacred Peaks into yet another sacrifice zone for the sake of a buck. This is “dirty money” in every sense of the phrase, from digging into the home of the native kachinas to trampling on the integrity of the earth beneath our feet.

For the Hopi in particular, the kachinas (spirit beings that represent manifestations of nature) — including the well-known fertility deity, Kokopelli — are said to live on the Peaks. Thirteen local tribes accord religious significance to the Peaks, including the Havasupai, Zuni, and Navajo, for whom the Peaks represent the sacred mountain of the west, called the Dook’o'oosłííd.

The development of the Peaks has been a longstanding point of contention, dating to the earliest days of Forest Service-sanctioned recreational development in the 1930s. In the early 1980s, when outside investors sought to greatly expand the ski area on the Peaks, the tribes unsuccessfully sued to block the expansion as a violation of their religious freedom. In 2008, additional major expansions were announced by developers, including the use of reclaimed sewage effluent to make artificial snow.

Another suit followed, in which native elders testified in federal court as to the Peaks’ essential spiritual significance. The tribes initially won this lawsuit, but it was reversed on appeal, and the development is now proceeding despite numerous concerns about both the cultural issues as well as the health effects of wastewater, including the presence of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and other potential endocrine disruptors.

The net effect has been to squarely raise the pointed query: is nothing sacred anymore? This is not a rhetorical question. The answer will decide whether our essential humanity has a future in a world increasingly dominated by technological abstractions and the relentless pursuit of profit over the interests of people and places.

I know that some may be uncomfortable with invocations of the sacred, preferring that arguments remain grounded in rational “facts.” In the case of Snowbowl, however, the facts have been argued for years in city council proceedings, legal briefs, Forest Service public comment processes, and more. Still, the powerful interests aren’t listening, and the excavators are now rolling, making it necessary to dig a bit deeper into ourselves (and our comfort zones) in order to keep these special mountains from being dug into any further.

Would it help if nature had “In God We Trust” stamped on it, or if you had to raise your right hand and swear an oath before entering it? Perhaps then people would be okay with icons like the Peaks being called “sacred” — a word which, by the way, derives in part from the idea of being “set apart” or remaining “whole.” Can’t we have even a few places in our midst set apart from human conquest?

Prioritizing the recreational desires of the leisure class over the spiritual and cultural needs of indigenous nations is a travesty of historical proportions. But it isn’t just native consciousness that suffers in this process; the exploiters eventually render their own habitat unlivable and, in the process, sow the seeds of their own destruction as well.

Whatever your views on the environment, surely we can agree that some places simply ought to remain wild, if only as symbolic reminders of the natural wellspring from whence come the essentials of human existence. Symbols matter — just ask the advertising industry. Relegating the most iconic geographical feature in this region to the status of just another place for wanton development represents a narrow-minded, and ultimately self-defeating, enterprise.

If you’ve ever been up to the Peaks, or similarly intact habitats in your bioregion, you can attest to their special qualities as a pristine landscape rife with biodiversity and life-giving properties. Visible from a hundred miles in any direction and adjacent to the Grand Canyon to the northwest, these mammoth desert mountains reflect the austere beauty of the region, asking us to recall a healthy humility to balance our heartless hubris. Indeed, ecologists have found the Peaks to contain six distinct “life zones” (Sonoran desert, Pinyon-juniper woodlands, Ponderosa pine forests, mixed conifer forest, spruce-fir forest, and alpine tundra) in an arid region where life in general is arduous and oftentimes a struggle to sustain.

The residents and activists protesting the further desecration of the Peaks are keenly aware of the magnitude of the stakes involved. When explicitly sacred areas are subject to the developer’s merciless blade, it renders everything disposable. The anachronism of skiing in the desert likewise connotes an attitude of human superiority that turns the world — including the people in it — into little more than a commodity to be bought and sold according to the whims of an unsustainable market ideology.

Against this narrative of relentless commodification, activists have been working to tell another story. Among those recently arrested in defense of these sacred vestiges were Klee Benally, filmmaker, activist, and lead singer of the internationally-renowned native punk band, Blackfire. As he was chained to an excavator, Benally — who has been deeply committed to the cause for years, including making the award-winning film, The Snowbowl Effect – spoke about his motivations: “This is not a game. This is not for show. This is not for the media. This is to stop this desecration from happening.”

Also arrested for attempting to halt the destruction was noted local author Mary Sojourner, who addressed the crowd that had gathered in support of the activists as she was being handcuffed and led away: “I took action not just for the Mountain, but … so that older women and men would see that one doesn’t have to be young to stand up for a place and community that you love.”

Friends, foes, fellow community members, and far-away readers — please heed these voices. The time to sit idly by and watch the remaining natural landmarks in our midst be sacrificed on the altar of greed has long since passed. Visit truesnow.org to find out how you can help, and make some noise to save sacred spaces and forestall the ongoing avalanche of avarice wherever you are.

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association and as Contributing Editor forNew Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008), and the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).