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Save The Peaks

By       Message Paul Torrence     Permalink
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Is the ghost of former President Andrew Jackson haunting the streets of Flagstaff, Arizona and the Whitehouse in Washington, D. C.?

Arizona already has become infamous for its state legalization of racial profiling, commissioning police to act as posses to enforce anti-Mexican prejudices. Now Arizona's Flagstaff, the gateway to the Grand Canyon, will extend the dominant culture's supremacism by complicity in the conversion of First Nations' sacred lands to a playground for the rich and powerful of Phoenix.

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The Obama administration wisely has challenged the noxious Arizona law that allows the police to question the immigration status of individuals during everyday police encounters. But President Obama's Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, has missed an opportunity to repudiate Arizona's intolerance of First Nation's religious freedoms.

Arizona's San Francisco Peaks soar high above the Colorado Plateau, providing a volcano-born refuge for plants, critters, and humans in a desert environment beset with the vicissitudes of global warming and climate change.
The Sacred San Francisco Peaks. Photo Copyright © Cy Wagoner. Used with permissi by Cy Wagoner
The San Francisco Peaks are sacred to at least 13 Native American Nations including Dine' (Navajo), Hopi, Zuni, Havasupai, Hualapai, Apache, Tohono O'Odoham and San Juan Southern Paiute. According to Yavapai-Apache Chairman Vincent Randall, the peaks are one of the "sacred places where the earth brushes up against the unseen world." To the Navajo, the Peaks are the "Holy house of our sacred deities whom we pray to and give our offerings." The massif's name speaks of the poetry of other languages: Doko'oo'sliid (Dine') - "Shining On Top" and Nuvatukaovi (Hopi) "The Place of Snow on the Very Top."

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In 1930, before Native Americans found a strong voice, the U.S. Forest Service permitted a ski lodge and an access road to be built on Mt Humpheys, one of the sacred Peaks. In 1969, opposition from several tribes and community groups put a halt to a full-on expansion with the usual Disneyland array of restaurants, shops, and lodges.

In 1979, consistent with its perceived mission to convert the natural world into ready cash, the Forest Service approved a new lodge, a paved road, additional parking, four new lifts, and 50 acres of trails. This expanded to 777 acres.

The chairman of the Hopi Tribe warned, "If the ski resort remains or is expanded, our people will not accept the view that this is the sacred home of the kachinas. The basis of our existence will become a mere fairy tale."

With a straight face, the Forest Service went on to claim that the ski lifts would facilitate the practice of Native American religious rights. Essentially the Courts concurred, finding that the Forest Service had faithfully met all the provisions of the existing laws.

Since 2002, the nearby city of Flagstaff has thrown its weight behind Phoenix developer's Eric Borowsky's scheme to get richer quicker by yet again building out the local Arizona SnowBowl ski resort and adding snowmaking capacity. It's a scheme born in hell: a sacrifice of sacred lands and scarce and invaluable high elevation habitat in order to make room for new skiing amenities and ski slopes. Counterfeit snow will be made using reclaimed sewage water that contains an arsenal of industrial chemicals, endocrine disruptors, and pharmaceuticals. Snowplay reigns! All bow down!

The First Nations have fiercely opposed this desecration ( Led by the Navajo Nation, the Yavapai Apaches, the Hopi Tribe, and the White Mountain Apaches were joined by the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Flagstaff Activist Network in an appeal of the Forest Service decision to allow the expansion of the resort and the use of reclaimed sewage water. Violations were claimed of the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. While the District Court found against the appellants, a three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling in 2007 and found for the First Nations and environmental groups.

Ninth Circuit Judge William Fletcher wrote: "The record in this case establishes the religious importance of the Peaks to the appellant tribes who live around it. From time immemorial, they have relied on the Peaks, and the purity of the Peaks' water, as an integral part of their religious beliefs. The Forest Service and the Snowbowl now propose to put treated sewage effluent on the Peaks. To get some sense of equivalence, it may be useful to imagine the effect on Christian beliefs and practices -- and the imposition that Christians would experience -- if the government were to require that baptisms be carried out with "reclaimed water."

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It was a rare victory for the First Nations, but it was to be all too fleeting.

Snowbowl and the U.S. government appealed the decision to the en banc Ninth Circuit Court. In a split decision in 2008, the Court reversed the earlier decision claiming it was too broad an interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and that "the diminishment of spiritual fulfillment serious though it may be is not a 'substantial burden' on the free exercise of religion." The Roberts-Bush Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal in 2009.

To its credit, the Obama administration conducted a review of the Forest Service's decision, incurring the unbridled wrath of Arizona's Senators and local Congressional Representative who have responded with delays of administration appointments and other threats.

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Paul F. Torrence is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, USA. His career spanned 30 years at the US National Institutes of Health where he was a Section Chief and then 8 years at Northern (more...)

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