Four people face federal charges filed Dec. 11 after taking part in a protest against snowmaking on the San Francisco peaks at the Coconino National Forest Service offices three months earlier.
The four protestors face multiple counts of misdemeanor charges for allegedly interfering with a Forest Service officer. They each face fines of up to $5,000 and six months in jail.
Klee Benally, Dawn Carol Dyer, Michael James Anders and Evan Hawbaker all face charges.
The charges came the same day Secretary Tom Vilsack of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a final report on Sacred Sites and an inter-agency memorandum to work toward Sacred Sites protection.
"Not only are these federal charges absurd, they are an attack on freedom of expression," said Benally, a Diné activist who has advocated for Indigenous religious freedom and protection of the Holy Peaks for more than 14 years. "The fact that the United States Forest Service (USFS) would bring these charges the same day they released their report on the protection of Sacred Sites demonstrates that they are not acting in good faith."
On Sept. 21 more than a dozen Flagstaff community members hand-delivered letters to the Coconino Forest Service to address the U.S. Department of Agriculture's policy on sacred places.
The self-described Sacred Sites advocates were there to voice their opposition to the Forest Service and the agency's role in approving Arizona Snowbowl ski area expansion and snowmaking with treated sewage effluent, also known as reclaimed wastewater, on the holy San Francisco Peaks.
Benally delivered two letters to acting Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart calling for an immediate halt to ski area expansion and snowmaking with effluent on the San Francisco Peaks. The letters were addressed to the Obama administration and included Secretary Vilsack, Supervisor Stewart, USDA Senior Adviser for Tribal Affairs Janie Hipp, and Counselor to the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Dion Killsback.
The letters called for the termination of Snowbowl's Special Use Permit (SUP) and the protection of sacred places.
"I entered the building with a group of people and requested to speak to Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart, we had a cordial conversation, he accepted letters regarding the Sacred Sites policy, and we shook hands multiple times," Benally said in a press release. "We broke no laws. The Forest Service is the one who is violating the law of the Creator."
According to the complaint, Stewart quickly read the letters and repeatedly asked the group to leave while holding the door open. Prosecutors assert in their complaint that the protesters were also interrupting business for other members of the public wanting to ask questions or buy permits.
Benally said he and the others turned themselves in to the U.S. Marshals on Tuesday so they could "move towards ending this act of repression and political retaliation against them by the U.S. Forest Service."
The letters also focus on public health concerns regarding contaminants in the treated sewage water that Snowbowl intends to use for snowmaking on the peaks and demanded a moratorium on the use of this reclaimed wastewater.
While community members delivered the letters, several protestors wore white suits and held caution tape with signs that read "Quarantine Snowbowl, Forest Service Kills Native Culture, Stop Snowbowl and Protect the Sacred."
According to the Forest Service complaint, the fire department and a hazmat team were called to address a potentially hazardous spill of clear liquid that flooded the Forest Service lobby floor after protesters exited.
The complaint alleges that Hawbaker tipped over a five-gallon bucket full of what the hazmat team determined to be treated sewage.
Hawbaker faces a maximum possible sentence of $20,000 in fines and two years imprisonment.
"These charges are absurd. The irony is that the USFS has authorized Snowbowl to spill more than 1.5 million gallons of treated sewage effluent per day onto a rare and pristine alpine habitat," Hawbaker said in a written statement. "Yet they feel it's appropriate to call hazmat when a pail of this same wastewater is allegedly poured onto their polished tile floors? I hold the USFS liable for the environmental poisoning that is set to occur on the peaks right now."
The delivered letters can be read at www.protectthepeaks.org. The sacred sites report can be read online at www.fs.fed.us/spf/tribalrelations/documents/sacredsites.