Protesters arrested after blocking road to Snowbowl

By Cassandra Raye Chee
Special to the Times

DOOK'O'OOSLÍÍD, Ariz., Aug. 9, 2011

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Ten people were arrested Monday after blocking the road to the Arizona Snowbowl in an attempt to prevent construction on a new snowmaking system they say will defile a mountain held sacred by all the region's indigenous people.

At 5 a.m., eight protesters chained themselves to pipes intended to transport reclaimed sewage effluent for snowmaking, and three cement-filled 55-gallon drums they had placed on the road leading to the ski area.

They also blocked the road by placing logs around themselves.

"The county called us out," said Flagstaff Police Officer Victor Liebre at the scene Monday morning. "The deputies are freeing the individuals from the barrels at the moment."

Coconino County sheriff's deputies had asked the protesters to voluntarily unlock themselves because they were trespassing, but the protesters did not do so.

At 11:15 a.m., police removed seven of them while one was still tied down.

Rudy Preston, a Flagstaff resident who was attempting to mediate between police and protestors, was also arrested.

All those arrested were taken to the Coconino County Detention Center and were charged with obstructing a public thoroughfare and trespassing. Bail was set at $475 per person.

Meanwhile, a number of vehicles containing hikers, Snowbowl employees, tourists and community members were denied entry up the mountain Monday.

The Peaks CookShack, a citizen organization, has been camped on the mountain since July 15 in hopes of stopping the Snowbowl operators from completing their planned pipeline and expansion, which involves cutting timber to create more ski slopes.

The protesters and other opponents claim the recreation area, a Forest Service lessee, is destroying the mountain by clear-cutting trees and bringing sewage water onto land 13 Native American tribes see as a ceremonial religious site.

According to Beth Lavely of Flagstaff, another protest had been planned for 12:30 p.m. Monday at Coconino National Forest headquarters in Flagstaff, but police and forest rangers prevented protesters from entering the building.

Klee Benally, one of the protesters arrested Monday morning, took part in the afternoon protest but said Forest Service officials refused to meet with the group.

"I wasn't allowed inside the building to make an appointment. They won't let us near the building," he said. "I wanted to ask them questions, but I was denied."

According to the Forest Service, the Snowbowl topic is considered a "high-level issue" because of recent confrontations between police and protesters.

"We respect the right of any group or person who desires to make their voice known through protest, and have provided a safe and reasonable place for this activity," said Karen Malis-Clark, Coconino National Forest public affairs officer. "We recognize there are many opinions regarding the sensitivities surrounding the Forest Service's decision to allow changes at Arizona Snowbowl and respect the opinions of all who voice them."

Outside, a dozen protestors stood 100 yards away from the building and held signs displaying their opinions.

"We are reminding the Forest Service what their job is. Their job is to protect Mother Earth. Instead they are doing the opposite," said Mitchell Bahe, a student at DinŽ College in Tsaile, Ariz.

Clark stated that people were welcome to call the office the following day at 8 a.m. to schedule an appointment to talk.

Monday's actions were preceded by a protest in downtown Flagstaff on Sunday, when six people were arrested.

Snowbowl operators contend they cannot remain in business without artificial snow, and using treated effluent is their only choice because potable water is in short supply.

In April they got the all clear to start construction in April after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied an injunction sought by the Save the Peaks Coalition and others opposed to the expansion.

In 2007 a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit ruled in favor of area tribes and environmentalists who argued the snowmaking violated the tribes' rights to practice their religion. That decision was overturned the following year by the full court, however, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal.

The courts declined to consider another argument the plaintiffs had brought because it was not part of the original complaint: that the U.S. Forest Service's environmental impact statement failed to consider the health hazards posed to people who ingest snow made from municipal wastewater.

The city of Flagstaff said the water will be pure enough to meet federal drinking water standards by the time it exits the treatment plant, but the artificial snow critics point out that those standards leave out a large range of pollutants that can harm human health and the environment.

The health-hazard argument is the gist of the present appeal. The Navajo Nation and several other original plaintiffs are not part of the present litigation, but some individual tribal members are.

The health concerns suit was heard in U.S. District Court last year and Judge Mary Murguia ruled in favor of the Forest Service. She was recently appointed to the 9th Circuit, which will hear the appeal.

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