It has been 80 years since Flagstaff’s 20-30 Club established Arizona Snowbowl’s original base in Hart Prairie, and since 1938 Arizona’s premier ski resort has been providing a different view of the Grand Canyon State, not as a vast desert expanse with blistering heat, but as a haven for skiing and snowboarding. With more than 50 trails, 48 accessible by eight lifts, spanning across the 777-acre resort, Snowbowl offers an experience for skiers and snowboarders of all skill levels and abilities, but its history, while innovative and impactful on Flagstaff’s economy, is steeped in controversy.
With a staff of more than 500 in the winter season and an average of 70 year-round employees, Snowbowl’s economic impact on Flagstaff is significant. In 2010, the annual economic impact of winter recreation, including visits to Snowbowl and other Flagstaff snow play sites, was a combined total of $48 million, according to a 2012 180 Winter Traffic study conducted by HDR Engineering Inc. The same study estimates “winter recreation contributes about 10 percent to the estimated $500 million annual impact that tourism has on the Flagstaff economy.”
“We’ve become a tourist attraction,” said J.R. Murray, general manager for Arizona Snowbowl. “It’s a business for us, but we’re in the business of providing fun.”
In years such as 2006, 2005, 2001 and 1998 when snowfall totals fell below 100 inches, Snowball saw its annual skier visits drop below 50,000. According to director of mountain operations Dale Haglin, you can’t operate a ski resort on numbers such as those. So what’s a business, whose survival depends on snow, to do when snowfall is scarce?
“Biggest thing in my mind is snowmaking,” said Haglin. “We wouldn’t be open right now if it wasn’t for snowmaking.”
In 2002, the City of Flagstaff signed a contract to sell reclaimed wastewater to Snowbowl for creating artificial snow during its winter season. And for Snowbowl, snowmaking with reclaimed wastewater, a process by which sewage effluent undergoes “specific advanced treatment requirements, including tertiary treatment with disinfection,” has been both a blessing and a burden.
Since they implemented the use of artificial snow in 2012, Snowbowl has seen a steady average of 182,000 annual skiers, whereas before implementing artificial snow, skier visits could drop to as low as 2,000, as happened in the 2001-2002 season.
While snowmaking has brought the resort more visitations and improved business, it has also brought a flurry of lawsuits and a broken trust with Native American tribes such as the Hopi and Diné (Navajo) who view the San Francisco Peaks as a sacred mountain.
In 2005, the Navajo Nation sued the U.S. Forest Service, which provides Snowbowl with a special use permit for operating on the San Francisco Peaks, for the proposed snowmaking. The suit said the plan violated Navajo religious rights and that the agency failed to adequately study the health effects of ingesting reclaimed water. The claims were rejected. As the city prepared to move forward with its sale of reclaimed wastewater to Snowbowl, the Hopi tribe in 2011 filed a complaint alleging, among other things, public nuisance, saying the artificial snow “harmed the environment, and thus the public’s use and enjoyment of the Peaks,” according to a court opinion by Judge Kenton D. Jones. Again, the complaints were dismissed. However on Feb. 8, the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed, in part, the trial court’s decision to dismiss the Hopi complaint, a move which Murray says has not affected Snowbowl’s anticipated 80th anniversary celebration.
“We haven’t changed anything because of it. That’s just another attempt to close us. They know that if they can shut off the water, the ski area goes back to years when we didn’t do so hot,” said Murray.
For decades, the underlying argument for Native Americans has been for the protection of the San Francisco Peaks, which they view as sacred and from which they retrieve ceremonial and cultural artifacts. Though the Snowbowl resort covers approximately one percent of the Peaks, many tribes feel its presence, claiming that development and use of reclaimed wastewater has had a negative impact on the environment, their religion and their culture.
“We’ve never said it’s not a sacred mountain, and we’ve never told them that they’re wrong. What we’ve said is it’s public land. It’s national forest and national forest land is managed for multiple uses, which includes recreation, and the ski area has been here 80 years,” said Murray. “They feel how they feel. They make the claims that they make, and they’re entitled to that.”
As Murray, Haglin and lift manager Kevin Wade reflect on Snowbowl’s history and challenges they also acknowledge some of its changes.
The first and most obvious: the technology.
“We operated much like a 1980’s ski area up until 2012,” said Murray. “When we started working here there were no phones. Just one phone to share, only for emergencies, and it was literally in a box on a tree.”
Now Snowbowl’s operation is wholly reliant on the technological advances of the 21st century. Cell phones, computers, grooming fleets, point of sale systems, fiber optic cables, new lifts and snowmaking technology keep the resort running smoothly on and off season. In fact, when Murray first began his stint as general manager in 1989, Snowbowl Road was unpaved. Until 2015, the newest lift in Snowbowl’s operation was from 1986, said Wade, who has been working at Snowbowl for 29 years.
“Just in the last three years we’ve built three new lifts,” said Wade. “Up until then I remember the lines just being huge, and you’d have to wait at least 40 minutes to head up the slope. Now, the line looks long, but you’ll be able to hitch a ride in about five minute because it’s so fast.”
“Thirty years we waited for a new lift. It’s like going from your grandfather’s standard ‘68 Chevy to a Lexus,” added Murray with a laugh.
While new technologies and challenges have changed the look and feel of Snowbowl, “the friendliness and camaraderie we had from yesteryear is something we still have to this day,” said Murrary.
“You know, when you spend the day with a kid or someone who has never gone skiing before and they leave with a smile on their face, that’s it,” said Wade. “That’s why we do this, and that’s just the best feeling in the world.”