Native American Tribes Win Battle Over Sacred Mountain

A federal appeals court has scuttled an attempt by an Arizona ski resort to use treated sewage to create artificial snow on mountain peaks considered sacred by several Native American communities.

In late March, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a strong rebuke to the U.S. Forest Service and the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort for a proposal to use up to 1.5 million gallons per day of chemically treated raw sewage to create fake snow on portions of the San Francisco Peaks in Coconino National Forest. The three-judge panel instead ruled in favor of the Native American tribes who argued that the project would substantially burden their religious liberty rights.

The Native American communities, including the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Acoma and Apache, all regard the Peaks as central to their spiritual beliefs. As noted by the 9th Circuit, even the Forest Service conceded that the “Peaks are sacred to at least thirteen formally recognized Indian tribes, and that this religious significance is of centuries’ duration.”

The 9th Circuit concluded in Navajo Nation v. United States Forest Service that spraying the natural mountains with treated sewage would substantially burden the religious liberty rights of the Native Americans who regard the Peaks as sacred, pray to them and use water from them in ceremonies.