FARMINGTON — An attorney representing the Navajo Nation and other tribes will have about eight minutes on Thursday to argue a critical aspect of tribal and Navajo cultural life, said George Hardeen, Navajo President Joe Shirley's spokesman.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco will hear arguments in a legal battle that seeks to halt a ski resort on the San Francisco Peaks from using reclaimed waste water for snowmaking purposes.

The resort, Snowbowl, is located near Flagstaff, Ariz.

The peaks are considered sacred to the Navajo people and at least a dozen other Indian nations in Arizona and New Mexico, according to a press release from Shirley's office.

"We'll have about eight minutes and 20 seconds," said Howard Shanker, attorney for the Navajo Nation and eight other clients.

He added that his time for arguments is split with two other attorneys who are representing the Hopi and Hualapai tribal nations. The arguments will be heard by a panel of three judges.

"The San Francisco Peaks are the Sistine Chapel to the Navajo," Hardeen said. "(Navajo medicine people) carry the soil and minerals from the mountains. It's a part of everything they do."

On Jan. 11, U.S. District Judge Paul Ronsenblatt ruled that the use of reclaimed waste water on the peaks doesn't constitute a substantial burden on the ability of the tribes to exercise their respective religions.


In addition, the Native tribes in their argument failed to show the shrine or ceremonies that would be impacted by Snowbowl's decision to use waste water, Rosenblatt ruled.

The U.S. Forest Service issued a decision in 2005 stating the approval of using waste water for snowmaking.

Shanker said he plans to introduce arguments pertaining to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, National Environmental Policy Act and other religious freedom issues. Also, he wants to shed light on some issues about the Forest Service's decision to allow snowmaking.

In a press release, he said the Forest Service failed to disclose scientific viewpoints and to consider that children may eat snow made from the reclaimed waste water.

Federal law prohibits the government from burdening a person's exercise of religion.

"We should've won in the lower court," he said.

Ronsenblatt's decision also noted that wildlife and plants that hold religious significance for the Navajo people exist on areas of the San Francisco Peaks not occupied by Snowbowl.

Shirley didn't agree with the court's January ruling.

"The District Court ruling makes no sense. The entire mountain is a shrine, not just parts of it," Shirley said in a press release.

Should either side lose the decision, Shanker said, the Navajo Nation and others can file a petition to have the case reheard with all of the appellate judges hearing the case, or they can petition the U.S. Supreme Court.

Erny Zah: