Tribes, environmental groups to join in sacred Peaks vigil

The sacred San Francisco Peaks blanketed in pure white snow following a snowstorm (Photo by Jeff Brostrom/NHO file photo).

The sacred San Francisco Peaks blanketed in pure white snow following a snowstorm (Photo by Jeff Brostrom/NHO file photo).

FLAGSTAFF - The legal battle to determine the fate of a Northern Arizona mountain held holy by more than thirteen Native American nations will be heard in a Pasadena, Calif. courtroom Dec. 11. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals granted the U.S. Forest Service and an Arizona ski resort the opportunity to challenge a previous decision by the court Oct. 17. The initial decision blocked the ski area from expanding and making fake snow from treated sewage effluent on the sacred San Francisco Peaks.

The Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort is attempting to expand its development and clear-cut acres of old growth trees and make fake snow from wastewater, which has been proven to have contaminants. A coalition of tribes and environmental groups have filed lawsuits against the U.S. Forest Service, which leases the public land to the Snowbowl, to stop this proposed development.

The Save the Peaks Coalition (STPC), a volunteer group formed in 2004, will join with youth and elders from Navajo, Hopi, Apache, Havasupai and other nations to caravan from Arizona to attend the court proceedings.

"We call upon all those who value respect, community health, cultural diversity and human rights to stand with us," Francis Tso a volunteer with STPC said. "Our way of life is in danger. The mountain eco-systems are in danger. The economic interests of one private business operating on public lands are pitted against environmental integrity, public health and cultural survival for Indigenous peoples."

STPC and tribal representatives will hold a prayer vigil and rally at the Pasadena courthouse during the proceedings. Other events are also being organized internationally and nationally to support the tribes and environmental groups efforts to protect the sacred Peaks.

Lawyers in the case will present oral arguments on Dec. 11 at 3 p.m. at the U.S. Court of Appeals located at 125 South Grand Avenue.

"The decision of the Ninth Circuit to rehear this case is regrettable. It means that the court will reconsider the case-not that it has reversed any decision at this point. It is, however, even more regrettable that our federal government seems to place the profitability of a privately owned, non-destination ski area, that operates on federal land, over the deeply held religious and cultural convictions of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans living in the southwestern United States," attorney Howard Shanker said, representing a number of groups opposed to the expansion.

Shanker, who is running for Congress in Arizona's Congressional District 1, further provided that, "this situation is indicative of the fact that we need better laws and lawmakers who are willing to stand up and be counted in the face of this type of injustice. The continued pursuit of the use of reclaimed waste water to make snow on the San Francisco Peaks should be an affront to all people of conscience everywhere."

On March 12, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court decision and ruled in favor of the tribes and environmental groups.  The court determined that the proposed ski area development would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

In the 9th Circuit ruling, Judge William A. Fletcher stated, "We are unwilling to hold that authorizing the use of artificial snow at an already functioning commercial ski area in order to expand and improve its facilities, as well as to extend its ski season in dry years, is a governmental interest of the highest order." The court also stated, "If appellants do not have a valid RFRA claim in this case, we are unable to see how any Native American plaintiff can ever have a successful RFRA claim based on beliefs and practices tied to land that they hold sacred."

The 9th Circuit decision had been hailed as a victory for religious freedom, environmental justice and cultural survival.

Twenty-one Arizona tribes passed a resolution calling on the Bush Administration not to appeal the 9th Circuit ruling and to repair damage done to tribal relations due to controversy created by the proposed ski area development.

"Why in 2007, do we as America's first people have no guarantee for protection of our religious freedom?" asked Jeneda Benally, an STPC volunteer. "The case to protect the Holy San Francisco Peaks demonstrates the need for further protection of Native American religious freedom and rights in this country. We will continue our dedication to save the Peaks until we have our human rights fully upheld."

"If you desecrate this sacred mountain, it is like destroying ... churches throughout the world. What will be next what if it's your place of worship?" Avery Denny, a member of the Diné (Navajo) Hataali Association asked.

The STPC is also calling for a national day of prayer for the Peaks.

"We recognize that there are many people who cannot join us in our efforts so we urge them to pray where they are," Benally said. "We all must take action in order to protect sacred sites and defend human rights for our future generations," she added.

The STPC will hold a Flagstaff vigil to support the protection of the Sacred Peaks on Tuesday, Dec. 11 at 4 p.m. at Heritage Square in downtown Flagstaff.

The caravan will depart for Pasadena from Flagstaff on Monday, Dec. 10 at 8:30 a.m. If you are interested in joining the caravan or organizing an event, call (928) 527-1431 or e-mail coalition@savethepeaks.org.

For information, updates on events or to donate for travel expenses please visit www.savethepeaks.org.

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