The Grand Canyon. The saguaro cactus. Vast desert expanses and blistering heat. Cottonwood trees and copper mines. A bastion of the American West.
There are many ways in which Arizona is described and romanticized. As a haven for skiing and snowboarding is not necessarily one of them, but since 1938, Arizona’s premier ski resort, Arizona Snowbowl, located at the base of the San Francisco Peaks just outside of Flagstaff, has been providing a different view of the Grand Canyon State. This year, Snowbowl, the ski resort whose history is steeped in innovation and controversy, turns 80.
“When the snow falls the people come,” says J.R. Murray, general manager of Arizona Snowbowl.
Just one day after the Feb. 15 blanket of snowfall, amounting to about 15 inches, the peaks are coated with white, and people from Flagstaff to Finland wait their turn to hit the slopes. 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.
Days before its 80th anniversary, Murray, director of mountain operations Dale Haglin and lift manager Kevin Wade reflect on the changes the ski giant has gone through.
The first and most obvious: the technology.
“We operated much like a 1980’s ski area up until 2012,” says 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 all keep the resort running smoothly on and off season where Snowbowl offers rides on its scenic lift. 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, says Wade, who has been working at Snowbowl for 29 years.
“Just in the last three years we’ve built three new lifts,” says 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.”
“30 years we waited for a new lift. It’s like going from your grandfather’s standard ‘68 Chevy to a Lexus,” adds Murray with a laugh.
If the 1986 lift was a ’68 Chevy, then its original rope tow was a pull-along wagon. During its formative years in 1938, the 20-30 Club, a Flagstaff ski club “composed of men who had to be 20 to join and were kicked out after they turned 30, because by then they were an insult to humanity,” said Andrew Wolf, former president of the 20-30 Club in an article from 1988 in the Arizona Daily Sun, established the resort’s original base area in Hart Prairie. The ski club constructed a rope tow on the mountain with a car wheel and a gas engine. The makeshift tow, which pulled about three people at a time, was in operation until 1952 when the base lodge was destroyed in a fire. Within two years, the Agassiz Lodge, a road leading to the ski area and two lifts were constructed, which laid the ground work for the Snowbowl that exists today.
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,” says Murray. “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 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,” says 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 the purposes of 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 in its 2001-2002 season. While snowmaking has brought the resort more visitations and improved business, it has also brought them 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 its operations on the San Francisco Peaks, for its proposed snowmaking. The suit said the plan violated their 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,” says Murray.
In 1979 Snowbowl faced another lawsuit filed by the Navajo Medicinmen’s Association and the Hopi tribe when the U.S. Forest Service approved development of new lifts, trails and facilities for the ski area, claiming the development infringed upon their first amendment right to practice their religion.
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, 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,” says Murray. “They feel how they feel. They make the claims that they make, and they’re entitled to that.”
To some, Snowbowl is a beacon of fun. It is the highest point in Arizona, the place where you can ski or snowboard while catching unimaginable views of Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. To others, Snowbowl is a desecration of the natural world, of things that benefit our spirits and the environment. Around and among its controversy, from the bottom of the Peaks that hover like a halo above Flagstaff, Snowbowl exists, prompting discussions of social, religious and environmental issues, impacting the local economy and providing families and skiers with an experience not found anywhere else in Arizona. Around and among the spirit of Flagstaff, Snowbowl exists.
Arizona Snowbowl celebrates its 80th anniversary with a torchlight parade and party on Feb. 23 and an anniversary concert at the Orpheum Theater on Feb. 24. For more information visit www.snowbowl.ski/80th