Laura Jo West had been with the U.S. Forest Service 33 years before she was backed into a choice that would change her life. For her, it was a surprise and a once-in-a-lifetime decision. But for others, it was an end they had seen coming.
For the last seven years West served as forest supervisor for the 1.8 million-acre Coconino National Forest in northern Arizona. She took a long road to get there.
West came to appreciate the outdoors through childhood summers in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. During those summers, West and her six siblings were “not allowed inside” for anything other than sleep and meals. She spent hours walking down by the lake and into the woods.
“I developed a connection to the land and to the critters,” she said. “You just feel so very small. Small, but expansive. It’s soul-filling. When I'm out there, I experience no separation from the earth and an overwhelming sense of obligation to protect it.”
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Following this sense, West earned degrees in natural resource management and public land policy. In 1989, she was recruited directly by the Forest Service and became a land management planner for the Ashley National Forest located in northeastern Utah and southwestern Wyoming
From there, she worked her way up to a district ranger and in 2006 transferred to Prescott National Forest. There, she felt she “really got to make a difference.” In 2010, she rose to the rank of forest supervisor -- the highest that can be achieved within a single forest -- and served at the Colville National Forest in Washington.
The commitment to career that allowed her to climb the ladder did not come without cost. When reflecting on the source of her motivation — the feeling of being out in the woods, connecting to the land — West said, “the higher I got in my agency, the less I actually went out and experienced that.”
“I'm not married, I don't have kids. Work was everything,” she said. “I didn’t have any distractions.”
While at the Colville National Forest, West was involved in the formation of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, which featured collaborative agreements between the “bitter enemies” of “environmentalists and loggers.”
“It was not easy,” West said of the collaborative success. “There were lots of trips and stumbles.”
When West had the chance to come to northern Arizona in 2015, she said, she saw the region as a similar area of “opportunity” to build community and consensus over land management policy.
That opportunity existed “with the Indigenous communities in particular,” she said. West recognized that the Coconino National Forest encompassed the traditional homeland stolen from multiple northern Arizona tribes that lost stewardship as a result of colonization. Because of the strong tribal influence in northern Arizona, West said she felt it was a stage where she could help “create a better world by bringing communities together.”
Little did she know that the work ahead would unravel her career and her sense of self.
Supervising a sacred mountain
When West arrived to supervise the Coconino National Forest, she soon became acquainted with the mountain that the Navajo call Doko’o’osliid, also known as the San Francisco Peaks.
The mountain, which is a sacred site to at least 14 tribes in the region, contains a summit that is the highest point in Arizona. It also contains the controversial but popular Arizona Snowbowl, a ski resort that exists under a special-use permit from the Forest Service. The presence of the resort within a sacred site, as well as the resort using reclaimed water for snowmaking, has made it the focus of numerous human rights and environmental lawsuits brought forth by inter-tribal coalitions from across the region.
“Our position is that the disrespect being shown to this mountain has an impact on current and future generations,” said Chris Jocks, a longtime member of the Indigenous Circle of Flagstaff and who also belongs to the Kahnawake Mohawk Tribe.
In his opinion, Doko’o’osliid is an area where the Forest Service has failed to live up to multiple federal directives.
According to the sacred site policy described on their website, the Forest Service has directives from U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack to “consult with Tribal leaders to determine how the Agency can do a better job addressing sacred site issues.” This directive is built upon presidential executive order 13007, issued by Bill Clinton in 1996, that requires that any branch managing federal lands must “accommodate access to and ceremonial use of Indian sacred sites by Indian religious practitioners and to avoid adversely affecting the physical integrity of such sacred sites.”
The federal government is also bound by Section 106 of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which requires that federal agencies consult with tribal authorities to identify significant sites and then “resolve adverse effects by developing and evaluating alternatives that could avoid, minimize, or mitigate these impacts on historic resources.”
The mechanism for fulfilling Section 106 requirements is a memorandum of agreement (MOA) -- which requires signatures from the agency, state and tribal historic preservation officers. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) also recommends that MOAs be developed in consultation with “Indian tribes ... grantees, permittees, and licensees.”
“The agency should coordinate early with interested Indian tribes,” reads the ACHP briefing on Section 106. “The federal agency should start the negotiation process with an open mind.”
Snowbowl in 2005 signed a MOA regarding its expanded development and artificial snowmaking on Doko’o’osliid. According to Jocks, the 2005 agreement failed to satisfy the vast majority of the 14 “interested” tribes in the region and was ultimately only signed by two.
“But the bald legal fact,” Jocks said, “is they can pass an MOA without tribal signatures.”
In 2015, just before West’s arrival on the Coconino National Forest, the MOA concerning Snowbowl and the sacred mountain expired. Until a new one was signed, Snowbowl’s activity was “out of compliance” with Section 106 of NHPA, Jocks said.
But this was not immediately clear to West. She didn’t realize she was out of compliance. Certain wording in the MOA implied that “there wasn’t a 10-year expiration,” and by her estimation the Forest Service had been living up the 2005 agreements.
She didn’t realize a new agreement was necessary.
“I kept authorizing [Snowbowl] projects under the 2005 decision,” West said.
She approved major expansions of the resort, including a new parking lot and new ski lifts. For some of the projects she felt “the decision had already been made,” and that tribal consultation was “truly a checkbox kind of thing.”
“It was my job to implement that decision. So I did,” West said.
When Snowbowl started to break ground on the projects, what followed was what West described as “intense” disapproval from many of the tribal communities that she had hoped to cultivate a relationship. She said she began to realize her mistake.
“My failure there was that we should have gone back to the drawing board,” she said.
But at the time, West said she still managed to “rationalize” her decisions to fulfill her “contractual obligations."
“I've done a lot of things in my career like that,” she said. “You just grit your teeth and do it because you're supposed to, you're required, it’s part of your job.
“And each time it was like being pecked to death by ducks. I felt my integrity dissolving. How could I do this while having these conversations, and listening for countless hours to tribal elders telling me stories of generations of love and trauma around these peaks? I couldn’t reconcile it.”
From that point on it took time for West to “mature” and “build confidence” in her career. As she did, she more quickly recognized opportunities to pursue agency directives and respond to the “bigger picture” of rebuilding trust and collaboration between the Forest Service and the Indigenous communities of northern Arizona.
In June of 2021, after a complaint from the Hualapai Tribe about the expired MOA, the Arizona State Historic Preservation Officer confirmed that implementing projects on Snowbowl under an expired MOA amounted to noncompliance with NHPA. The decision caught West by surprise. She told her team to “stop everything right now and get clear about what this means.”
West brought Forest Service attorneys to the table, as did Snowbowl, and the legal teams commenced “fighting with each other for months,” as to whether projects could be implemented under an expired MOA.
Eventually, it was determined that they could not. As the Forest Service had approved Snowbowl’s Master Development Plan earlier that year, a new MOA would be necessary before the agency could move forward with the environmental review process required to approve any new project construction. West saw the drafting of a new MOA as the perfect opportunity to rebuild consensus, “honor” tribal connections to the mountain and actualize federal directives around sacred sites.
The new agreement
Presented with the chance to create consensus and collaboration around a sacred site that had long been the “epicenter” of controversy, West had no illusions about the difficulty of the work ahead.
“It was going to be messy, it was going to be hard, we were probably going to have fights in various places along the way,” she said. “It was going to be a challenge. But I think it was the right challenge.”
For these reasons, West wasn’t willing to unilaterally promise a timeline for approving the new MOA. As recommended by federal directives, she went in with an “open mind” and wanted to develop a timeline through the consultation process.
“I wasn't promising anyone, including the tribes, an outcome because I didn't know what was going to develop,” she said. “It was a completely wide open, kind of scary place. But I thought, ‘That’s OK, we're going to travel it together.’”
From Jocks’ perspective, West “saw an opening and took it.” Her efforts seemed “sincere” when he met with her about a new MOA.
“She wanted to do the right thing,” he said. “She understood there were limitations, but wanted to do what she could.”
But West’s approach of elevating tribal consultation soon caught the attention of Mountain Capital Partners (MCP), which owns Snowbowl. She said her refusal to offer a definite timeline was unacceptable to MCP and Snowbowl executives.
“I told them it could take at least a year and a half, maybe even two, to get a new MOA down because we're opening up a conversation with tribes,” she said. “They said, ‘No, it only takes three months.’”
Snowbowl put forth the MOA timeline built around “minimum legal requirements,” but this did not satisfy West.
“We have the discretion to do so much better than that,” she said.
What happened next was somewhat expected, West said: Snowbowl complained. In January and February this year, MCP, the largest ski area collective in the Southwest, scheduled meetings with Forest Service Chief Randy Moore. In a Feb. 17 phone call with West’s superior, quoted in a grievance letter provided to the Arizona Daily Sun by West, regional forester Michiko Martin informed West that MCP stated it did not “believe [West is] a neutral and trusted agent. They believe that you are orchestrating a master plan to upend them.”
West was accused of being “pro-tribe” and “biased toward tribes” and otherwise “deliberately stalling to prevent MCP from implementing approved projects.”
“I asked regional forester Martin if MCP provided any evidence for their allegations,” West wrote in her grievance letter. “She replied they had not.”
While West expected that Snowbowl would complain, she did not expect how these complaints would be received by the Forest Service. On March 17, right after the conclusion of the meetings between MCP and Moore, West received a letter from Martin informing her that her authority to address the expiration of the Snowbowl MOA was rescinded “effective immediately,” and re-delegated to Steve Hattenbach, supervisor of the Cibola National Forest in New Mexico.
West said she was shocked that in one fell swoop, the Forest Service chose to accommodate MCP rather than defer to her judgment, despite the fact that she was a devoted employee and agency leader with 33 years of experience.
When asked to estimate the reason behind this decision, West speculated that it could have something to do with the influence of the National Ski Area Association (NSAA), whose board overlaps with MCP leadership.
“I was told by my boss that [the NSAA] lobby on behalf of the Forest Service for additional funding for recreation, infrastructure and things like that,” West said. “It was made clear to me in a conversation I had with my boss that it was a relationship the agency wanted to protect.”
In a statement to the Arizona Daily Sun, the Forest Service Southwest Regional Office said the decision to re-delegate West’s authority was made because “we value the local working relationships with Tribal partners and did not want to put the Coconino National Forest in a difficult situation where it is a challenge to maintain these important relationships with local constituents.”
J.R. Murray, director of planning and operations for Snowbowl and an NSAA board member, declined to comment on any friction between Snowbowl and West’s approach to the new MOA, responding to an inquiry from the Arizona Daily Sun by saying “the MOA process is the responsibility of the Coconino National Forest, not Snowbowl. Questions should be directed to the agency.”
Whatever the reason, when West was stripped of her authority in this moment of tribal consultation, she said all the rationalizations, the compromises and the lines of integrity she had learned to blur “became intensely sharp.”
“When the agency made the decision to remove me from my work with the tribes and go in a different direction, they asked me to support that direction,” West said. “That was my trigger. I could not cross that line. Because doing so meant I would have broken all the promises I've made to the tribes.”
She tried for four months to get the decision repealed so she could resume her work, being “stubbornly tenacious” in her efforts to reclaim her authority and convince the agency of what she believed to be the right path forward. Her pleas were denied.
“I had to decide for myself. It’s my integrity or my job,” she said. “I chose my integrity.”
West decided to leave her post and leave a career she had built over three decades. Her last day with the Forest Service was July 30.
The shell game
West’s story is not unique, said Navajo tribal member Shawn Mulford, a representative of Navajo medicine people who has been long embroiled in the controversy surrounding Snowbowl and Doko’o’osliid.
“We've been here as Indigenous people since the beginning. And we've seen many, many forest supervisors come and go,” Mulford said. “We call that the shell game of personnel.”
In Mulford’s opinion, every time a forest supervisor starts to “realize the sanctity” of what Doko’o’osliid represents to Indigenous people and the future of life in northern Arizona, they — like West — begin to “question their way of doing things.”
“That’s when they [the Forest Service] pull them out,” Mulford said. “They put them on another national forest, or bring them back to Washington D.C. to re-educate them into the ‘right’ mindset. They get to this place where Laura Jo is at, and they have to move on in one fashion or the next.”
Mulford recalled recognizing the pattern the last time he saw West’s predecessor, Earl Stewart.
“He was on his knees, crying,” Mulford said.
He believes Stewart learned a lesson: “When you go up against sacred things, eventually you begin to learn that you're not going to fool the good spirit.”
Of the forest supervisors who he has seen come and go, “each one of them has learned that lesson in different ways,” Mulford said. “Some of them get sick. Some of them decide to reset their moral compass. Some of them are brought to their knees in tears.”
“The elders always said, when we began working with the Forest Service, ‘We see you crying in the future.’ And I see that time and time again with these forest supervisors,” Mulford said. “They leave with tears.”
The implications of this ever shifting “shell game” of forest supervisors is “troubling,” said Erik Stanfield, an anthropologist for the Navajo Nation, adding that it makes trust between the Forest Service and the tribes very difficult to build. While West may not have had a perfect relationship with tribal communities in northern Arizona, she had at least been working with them for seven years.
“One of the problems with somebody like [West] departing is the fact that you have this long-term relationship and trust relationship, legally and interpersonally,” Stanfield said.
Re-delegation and changes in leadership “becomes very frustrating to a lot of tribal members and tribal representatives that have to start over again.”
Stanfield thinks the Forest Service decision to re-delegate West’s authority to Hattenbach was “unusual.”
“In my experience -- and I’ve been working with federal land managers for many years -- I've never heard them bring in somebody from an entirely different place,” he said.
Still, Stanfield remains cautiously hopeful that Hattenbach will prove effective at facilitating a new MOA that satisfies the invested tribal communities. For Mulford, however, before any forward progress can be made, every noncompliant project that West authorized under the expired 2005 MOA needs to be re-addressed.
“Then we can come together and talk about it from there,” he said.
Upon making the decision to leave the Forest Service, “a cascade of other things became clear" to West.
For the first time in 33 years, she slowed down. She realized how deeply her commitment to her career with the Forest Service had caused her to neglect her personal health and her own ability to “fill her cup.” She started to hustle less and meditate more.
She went back to the woods.
“All the ways I had been shrinking myself just started flooding into my awareness,” West said. “I never really succeeded at finding that work/life balance that everybody talks about. I think one of my failures as a leader is that I was not able to model that well for my employees.”
As she continued to slow down in the wake of her decision, West became more able to recognize how the freneticism of work obsession dominated her life. In reflection, she thought a similar kind of obsession characterized Snowbowl’s advocacy for a “legal minimum” approach to MOA consultation.
“I'm firmly convinced the only way Snowbowl is going to be successful into the future is if they're willing to slow down and really have the conversations that need to be had,” she said, adding that even a more deliberate pace of business “may not guarantee they'll succeed.”
“Let’s get real,” she said. “We have a ski area in a freaking desert. I do think that based on climate change, there will someday not be a ski area up on that mountain.”
While West has decided that she and the Forest Service are no longer compatible, she does not consider herself retired. She’s going to look for new, more connected ways to pursue her purpose of facilitating meaningful collaboration over land management.
“I'm hardly done,” she said. “I don't want to leave this job. I don't want to leave my work. I’m going to find a new way to contribute.”
As for the agency that she devoted so much of her life to, West wishes the Forest Service well.
“I hope the Forest Service will really back up and acknowledge these communities for what they've been through and proceed differently,” she said. “I hope there's a learning that goes on — the same learning that I experienced. I hope others in the agency, including my successor, I hope they experience it.”
Specifically, she hopes the Forest Service learns that sometimes the best way to lead as a land manager is to loosen one’s grip on power.
“I think it's an imperative,” West said. “It's absolutely imperative that we do this on a global scale.”