The Hopi Save a Tiny Plant

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Packera franciscana (Senecio franciscanus), the San Francisco Peaks Groundsel or Ragwort, an endangered Arizona alpine plant. Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service.

On my first automobile excursion from California to New Mexico in the summer of 1987, my traveling companion Ed and I were driven from our lodgings in an infernally hot Scottsdale by a ferocious combination of heat and cockroaches–it was the latter, hidden mostly in the brown carpeting of my bedroom but cropping up alarmingly from time to time, which really got to me. So we left Scottsdale after sundown and arrived in blissfully cool Flagstaff, fragrant with the odors of mountain forests, in the middle of the night. I have rarely been so glad to arrive anywhere, and this principal memory of relief is vivid for me still. My second main memory of Flagstaff, though, is this: the next morning, as we were checking out, a female guest at the front desk was engulfed in an absolute frenzy, a high-decibel screaming fit, claiming that the chemicals in the motel’s hot tub had dyed the lower half of her long straight mane of blonde hair bright green. And it was astonishingly true, though, unlike her, I found the whole incident hilariously funny. We continued on to New Mexico that day.

What we paid almost no attention to, I’m sure, were the San Francisco Peaks just north of Flagstaff. And I regret that now heartily. The highest point in that range, Humphreys Peak, is the highest point in Arizona, 12,633 feet in elevation. This mountain mass is what remains of an eroded volcano, and there is an aquifer within the volcano’s caldera which supplies much of Flagstaff’s drinking water. The Arizona Snowbowl ski area is located on the western slopes of Humphreys and has been the focus of much controversy in recent years because of the expansion of the ski resort, ecological concerns, and threats to the integrity of the peaks themselves as a sacred site for several Native American tribes. For the Hopi, for example, the peaks are associated with the cardinal direction southwest, are considered ritually pure sacred spaces, and are a source for various ceremonial objects. The alignment of the sunset from San Francisco Peaks with Hopi villages on Black Mesa is used to calculate the winter solstice, important for a whole range of religious, agricultural and cosmological reasons.

The Hopi have been engaged in a serious legal battle with government authorities and the ski resort itself over various issues, and in November their legal counsel filed a new lawsuit claiming that the ski resort’s planned upcoming creation of artificial snow for the winter skiing season, approved by the U.S. Forest Service, did not take into account the irrevocable damage that might be done by drifting artificial snow on the habitat of the extremely rare and endangered San Francisco Peaks grounsel, or Packera franciscana (aka Senecio franciscanus), an ankle-high plant with yellow flowers whose only natural habitat is the peaks. There are only about 500 plants in existence, and the Hopi lawsuit claims that the artificial snow, made from water pumped directly from Flagstaff’s sewage treatment plant, would contaminate the tiny population of San Francisco Peaks groundsel with trace levels of hormones, antibiotics, antidepressants, pharmaceuticals, steroids and antibiotic-resistant genes, among other horrific substances. I don’t know how all this will turn out, but I’m rooting for the little plants. And thanks go to the Hopi, once again, for placing themselves in the forefront of challenges, environmental and cultural and economic, to the powers that be. May they be victorious. On behalf of the vulnerable little groundsel, and for the sake of the rest of us too. 

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