The Sacred San Francisco Peaks: Arizona, USA




Rising from the usually dry high plateau of the American Southwest, three volcanic peaks of around 3360 meters thrust skyward just north of the City of Flagstaff, Arizona, with a sharpness of outline in the clear air that gives them a supernatural appearance and enables them to be seen from great distances.  This complex, the San Francisco Peaks is sacred to most of the Native American peoples of this region, being significant to 20 tribes, and holy to 13 tribes, including the Navajo, Hopi, Havasupai, Hualapai, Zuni, Acoma, White Mountain Apache and Yavapai Apache.  To the Navajo the Peaks are the sacred mountain of the west, a key boundary marker and place where ceremonial and medicinal plants are collected.  Its name to them in English translation is “Shining on Top.”  To the Hopi, their “Place of Snow on the Very Top” is, for half of the year, the home of the Kachina spirits who bring gentle rains to thirsty corn plants.


Not only are “The Peaks” valued for their spiritual nature, but the mountain “captures” water in the form of both rain and snow due to the orographic effect, and nourishes surrounding lands with streams, springs and groundwater aquifers.  Flagstaff is dependent on this mountain water.  Both plant and animal biological diversity are high.  The Peaks are different from the surrounding lands of semi-desert and pinyon pine-juniper woodland and savanna, since they bear closed forest of aspens and conifers, with associated flora and fauna. They are tall enough to exhibit altitudinal biotic zones as well as four differing compass aspects.  It is indeed a special place in a vast natural landscape and spiritscape.


The San Francisco Peaks are part of the Coconino National Forest that is administered by the U.S. Forest Service.  Over the years, under a policy of “multiple use”, the Peaks have received a small, rustic ski development (Arizona Snowbowl), a pumice mine (White Vulcan Mine), and some timber harvesting.  In spite of protest and a lawsuit by several Native American tribes, the ski area was expanded in 1983 to include more trails, four lifts, parking and a lodge.  The courts ruled that this did not impede the religious rights guaranteed by the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, even though it offends their beliefs.  But, also in the 1980s, the Native Americans won a victory over proposed expansion of the pumice mine.  The US Department of Interior bought out the mining rights, the mine was closed in 2002 and the site restored.


Late in 2002, however, another threat to the sanctity of the Peaks arose with another proposed expansion of the Snowbowl, which had been suffering from declining snow cover and hence profits.  To counter unreliable snowfall, it was proposed to use Flagstaff’s wastewater to make artificial snow.  Thirteen tribes united in a “Save the Peaks Coalition” and were joined by some environmental NGOs, especially the Sierra Club.


In April 2005 the Forest Service announced its “finding” in favor of the expansion proposal, in spite of two years of negotiation with and petitions from the Coalition. The Coalition in August 2005 brought a legal court appeal against the Forest Service decision. In January, 2006, an Arizona District Court denied the appeal, apparently feeling that the economic interests of Arizona Snowbowl Resorts was more of a priority than the beliefs of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans. This decision was appealed to a Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in September 2006. In March 2007, this higher court reversed the lower court’s and Forest Service’s decision.


 An appeal to The US Supreme Court by the developer, or even the Forest Service is possible, since this landmark case could affect the management of very many areas of public lands where Native Americans have sites of special spiritual value.  This raises a great fear in government land management agencies.  But it is high time that those making policy and management decisions give more recognition to the inspirational values, power sources, healing powers, and sacredness of mountains, and less to short-term and short-sighted profits.



Responsible: L. Hamilton