FLAGSTAFF - The U.S. Forest Service has denied a request from the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort to build a conveyor belt to bring beginning skiers to the top of a practice slope.
A letter sent to the resort by Coconino National Forest supervisor Nora Rasure said she won't approve the plan unless the courts allow snowmaking and other improvements at Snowbowl. The U.S. Forest Service leases the land to the resort.
A suit seeking to block the Snowbowl's efforts to add snowmaking using reclaimed wastewater is being considered by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Indian tribes sued the resort and the Forest Service to block the expansion, saying it would intrude on their ability to worship on the San Francisco Peaks site. An appeals court panel sided with the tribes last year, but the full court decided to review that decision and heard arguments in December.
A decision hasn't been issued. Most rulings are handed down by the court within six months of the hearing, but there is no formal timetable.
If the court rules in favor of Snowbowl and the Forest Service this year, Snowbowl plans to install the conveyor belt this year and the snowmaking equipment next year, general Manager J.R. Murray said Tuesday.
The proposed 160-foot conveyor belt system would be similar to moving sidewalks used at airports and help new skiers get more time on a gentle bottom slope by eliminating walks back up the hill. The resort plans also called for grading an area near a chair lift to smooth it out and make a gentler grade.
Murray estimates the resort gives lessons to about 25,000 skiers and snowboarders per year, with children too small to ride a chair lift walking up an outdoor carpet in their skis.
The conveyor system would sit on top of the ground, and a ski instructor at the bottom would load children in ski gear on the belt. At the top, another instructor would remove them. Altogether, Snowbowl has proposed to eventually add four of these belts.
"It's important to get this installed for the kids," said Dave Smith, who handles marketing for Snowbowl. "... They came to ski, not to hike."
The 777-acre resort rests on the western flank of the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff.
Besides adding snowmaking equipment, resort owners want to remove about 100 acres of forest and add a fifth lift to attract more skiers on manmade snow.
The Snowbowl opened late in three of the last five years because of lack of snow and its owner has said adding snowmaking is critical to its financial survival.
The tribes contend that making snow with reclaimed water would contaminate their religious freedom.