As the winter season approaches, snowboarders and students anticipate the opening of the slopes at Arizona Snowbowl. Snowbowl officially started making snow in preparation for its opening day, “White Friday,” Nov. 28.

This is the second year Snowbowl will be using artificial snow, made from reclaimed water, which has been the subject of controversy for environmental and Native American groups since the city of Flagstaff’s 2002 decision to sell reclaimed water to Snowbowl.

“Snowmaking has had so many positive effects on both the operation of the resort as well as the guest experience,” Snowbowl’s Marketing and Sales Director Jason Stratton said in a press release. “Snowmaking allows Snowbowl to maintain a solid base of snow throughout the entire season.”

The area of land on the San Francisco Peaks where  Snowbowl is located is owned by the Coconino National Forest. The United States Forest Service has designated the land as Traditional Cultural Property because the San Francisco Peaks are held sacred by 13 different Native American tribes including the Hopi and Diné (Navajo).

Snowmaking has kept Snowbowl open longer and more frequently, which brings more business to the Flagstaff economy. Flagstaff’s reclaimed water has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for use in snowmaking and Federal Courts have upheld the decision that snowmaking does not prevent anyone from practicing their religion.

“Bringing over 140,000 guests on the mountain is the real impact,” Stratton said. “We also have a huge economic impact to the local work force; we hire over 550 positions throughout the winter season and employ around 50-60 year-round staff.”

Arizona Snowbowl does not publish its revenue, which makes it hard to calculate its impact on the Flagstaff economy. According to the Coconino County gross sales from 2005 to 2013, winter is commonly the slower tourism season, despite also being the ski season.

“It is the reason people wanted snowmaking so we would have activity in that season. For decades, Snowbowl skiing depended on the chance of a good snow year or not.  In recent years, we have had little natural snow and that was why there was such a push for snowmaking.  With snowmaking, we would have a predictable skiing season,” said director of Arizona Hospitality Research & Resource Center Cheryl Cothran.

Snowbowl started snowmaking in 2013. Since there is no available information for 2014-2015 ski season, the only available years for reference are 2012-2013 and 2013-2014. The revenue per available room (RevPAR) is a system of measurement for performance in the hotel industry.

The RevPAR for the city of Flagstaff during the months of Dec. 2012 through Feb. 2013 was 42.54, 29.89 and 33.62. The RevPAR for the city of Flagstaff during the months of Dec.  2013 through Feb. 2014 was 45.54, 31.02 and 35.10. Showing some growth, Dec. 2013 was the best year on record for the month of December. For reference, the RevPAR has been fluctuating from 21 to 45 since 2004.

“It simply has not been possible to see the impact of skiing in the tax data that is commonly collected — it has been that way in good snow years and bad. There is a trade-off, which means that in good snow seasons we got skiers, but in bad snow seasons we got lots of pass-thru traffic on the Interstate and other kinds of visitors,” Cothran said.

Based on the RevPAR since Snowbowl started making snow in 2013, the city of Flagstaff has not shown a significant increase in hotel tourism. However, because Snowbowl has only been making snow for one year on record, there is not enough information to prove whether snowmaking has an effect on tourism. Arizona Snowbowl also employs people from the community and brings in tourists to eat at restaurants and buy from local stores, in addition to staying in hotels.

In Jan. 2014, the Hopi Tribe won the right to proceed with a lawsuit against the city of Flagstaff. Until now, the Hopi tribe has lost every one of its legal actions against the U.S. Forest Service.

This lawsuit would be challenging Flagstaff’s 2002 decision to sell reclaimed water to Arizona Snowbowl. The Appeals Court is going to rule on the tribe’s question of whether the snowmaking “interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property by an entire community or neighborhood or by a considerable number of persons” in the eyes of the law.

“Snowbowl has been very divisive in the Flagstaff community and beyond,” said Director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club Sandy Bahr. “It is representative of how our system does not adequately consider the values of Native American communities and connections they have to the lands.”

On Nov. 28, more than 50 people protested Snowbowl’s White Friday opening in front of city hall. The protestors marched through downtown Flagstaff chanting “Boycott Snowbowl” and “You say recreation, we say desecration.”

“This is beyond environmental racism, this is an ongoing act of cultural genocide,” said volunteer with Protect the Peaks Klee Benally. “The U.S. Forest Service, Snowbowl, and City of Flagstaff have made it clear that a couple of small ski runs covered with a foot of treated sewage and marginal economic profit are more important than the cultures of 13 Indigenous Nations, public health and the ecological integrity of the holy San Francisco Peaks.”

Snowbowl, currently under the ownership of James Coleman, is now increasing its snowmaking by 15 percent, which would now cover 75 percent of the ski area. Officials are also planning on building two additional ski lifts. Snowbowl is now currently scheduled to be open until the end of skiing season.

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