Court: No fake snow at Snowbowl

SAN FRANCISCO - Operators of the Arizona Snowbowl can't use treated wastewater to make snow, a federal appeals court ruled Monday in a decision that found the procedure would have violated the religious freedom of Navajos and a dozen other American Indian tribes.

The 777-acre resort north of Flagstaff wanted to add a fifth chair lift, spray man-made snow and clear about 100 acres of forest to extend the ski season on the western flank of the San Francisco Peaks that have spiritual and religious significance to 13 Southwest tribes.

The tribes claimed the plans would have violated their religious freedom and that the government did not adequately address the impact of wastewater on the environment.

In a 64-page decision, Judge William Fletcher of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the snowmaking scheme violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and was akin to using wastewater in Christian baptisms.

"We are unwilling to hold that authorizing the use of artificial snow at an already functioning commercial ski area in order to expand and improve its facilities, as well as to extend its ski season in dry years, is a governmental interest 'of the highest order,' " Fletcher wrote for the three-judge panel, which heard arguments in September.

The ruling overturned an opinion by U.S. District Judge Paul Rosenblatt in Phoenix who said last year the tribes "failed to present any objective evidence that their exercise of religion will be impacted by the Snowbowl upgrades."

The panel also ruled the U.S. Forest Service did not adequately address the possible health risks of drinking water tainted by runoff from snow made with treated wastewater.