Sustainable Politics
By Corinne L. Casazza



Howard Shanker is an Arizona attorney and the Democratic candidate in the 2008 congressional elections for the 1st Congressional District of Arizona. But, first and foremost Howard is an environmentalist. He practices environmental law and teaches it at the Arizona State University, College of Law. Shanker was appointed by the Clinton Administration and served a three-year term on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, Enforcement Subcommittee.

Howard began working with the Native Americans in Arizona twelve years ago when he represented the Hopi elders. He doesn’t know how the tribe found him, but once they did, they would not allow anyone else to represent them. In more than a decade of working with Native Americans, Shanker has become very familiar with their beliefs.

“Native Americans believe in Hozho, ‘the beauty way,’” said Shanker. “This is the balance between man and nature. The tribes see themselves as the caretakers of the planet.”

Howard has a track record of successfully defending the tribes and winning landmark victories that support both the tribes and the environment. Back in 2001, Howard represented the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club against the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service had approved the development of 272 acres of national forest land next to the entrance of Grand Canyon National Park. This land was to be converted into the largest shopping center in Northern Arizona along with a 1200-room hotel and entertainment complex.

Howard’s clients challenged the approval of this project because it would attract more people to an already-crowded Grand Canyon National Park. They also felt the existence of seeps and springs within the park might be threatened by pumping nearby groundwater. While developers gave assurances they would not use much groundwater, these assurances were never put in writing and not available when the Forest Service approved the project.

Howard won this decision. The Court stated that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to analyze the full impact of the project on the environment, and for not examining alternatives to building on national forest land.

“The government has to realize the value of leaving things alone and the concept of Hozho. The only value most officials can see is the money that can be made. They see no obligation to our future generations and to preserve nature. We have to have somewhere to live,” Shanker said.

He went on with this analogy, “The earth is like a chocolate chip cookie and mankind keeps taking bites. If this continues, it won’t work out well. The Earth will be gone.”
A much more recent triumph of Shanker’s dealt with the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort. The organization was determined to use recycled sewage water at the foot of the San Francisco Peaks to extend their snowmaking. Howard took action representing the Navajo Nation.

“The San Francisco Peaks is one of four sacred mountains of the Navajo,” said Shanker. The peaks are actually sacred to 13 tribes in Arizona.

“The peaks play a pivotal role in their creation stories. In our terms, it would be like the Garden of Eden on steroids; the mountains play a significant role in their daily life and prayer,” Shanker said. He explained that the Nation believes the Universe is balanced on four sacred peaks like a table. If one leg becomes shorter than the other, the whole balance of the Universe is off.

Howard lost at the District Court level, but appealed to the 9th Circuit Court which issued a unanimous ruling protecting the peaks. The Court ruled that using effluent to make snow violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and it did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act.

‘’Because of this decision, other tribes throughout the nation could have the ability to rely on this case to help protect sites that are sacred to them and are culturally and religiously important,’’ Shanker said.
The court also recognized something else in this decision which is important for all of us; the fact that A-plus treated water is not potable water. You can’t drink it.
Howard also represents the Navajo in the matter of uranium contamination. “Navajo Nation is rich in uranium. The government used this for their atomic weapons program in WWII. They brought in contractors to mine and process uranium for decades,” said Shanker.

According to a Los Angeles Times article, “from 1944 to 1986, 3.9 million tons of uranium ore were chiseled and blasted from the mountains and plains. The mines provided uranium for the Manhattan project, the top-secret effort to develop an atomic bomb.” In the decades after World War II, more than 1,000 mines and four processing mills on tribal land shut down. However, radioactive waste and debris from the mining remains. The Navajo live in and around these uranium-contaminated areas. Animals graze and children play in the radioactive waste and debris. The ground water is threatened by radioactive contamination as well.

Shanker testified during Congressional hearings presented to Rep. Henry Waxman, Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, regarding the legacy of uranium contamination on Navajo land. For decades, the Navajo Nation and many grassroots organizations have been trying to get this issue addressed, but without much success.

Shanker felt the Committee’s questioning of government officials showed their understanding of this long-held issue. Chairman Waxman berated officials from the EPA, the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) among others. Waxman asked what was needed to make this situation right. The parties are to reconvene before the Committee on December 12 of this year to discuss what, if any, progress has been made.

“Although skepticism in matters such as these is usually the rule, I left the hearing with a feeling of hope. I am hopeful
Congress will follow through on the journey it has apparently committed to beginning,” Shanker said.

His Congressional Platform is based on “Accountability, Sustainability, Responsibility.”

A progressive candidate, Shanker is opposed to the war in Iraq, believing we should remove our troops as soon as possible in “a reasoned and responsible manner.” As an environmental advocate, he is increasingly concerned with water and energy needs and developmental growth that is sustainable.

He believes every citizen deserves a sustainable, clean, water supply derived from a local source. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the state of Arizona could face a potential water supply crisis by 2025. Even with this threat looming, in about 80% of the state, developers can build massive sub-divisions without any assurance of a sufficient water supply. Arizona is more the rule than the exception; this goes on in many other states as well.

“Our state legislature and agencies are failing miserably in the face of an identifiable and acknowledged crisis. The state needs to pass a law, in part, requiring that subdivisions of a certain size have a 100-year assured water supply — without which they cannot build,” says Shanker.

Things must change at the federal level as well. “When allocating resources, the federal government must give more weight to preservation.” He believes strongly in getting away from a carbon-based economy and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Shanker feels that solar power and wind power should be used as our sources of energy. “We should be exporting energy; not importing it.”

Shanker’s candidacy has been endorsed by a great number of Native American organizations, many of which had never endorsed a candidate before. This list includes: Yapai-Apache Association, Dine Hataallii Association (Navajo Medicine Men), Cameron and Birdspring Chapters of the Navajo Nation. Green Sedona and Native Rock Band Blackfire have endorsed him as well.

Shanker received a Living Luminary Award at a recent conference in Sedona, Arizona for his environmental efforts. He was badgered good-naturedly by Dannion Brinkley of Saved by the Light fame when Brinkley presented him with the award. Brinkley asked the Arizona attorney whether or not he felt he was spiritual, Howard joked, “I have a lot of spiritual people telling me what to do.”

Brinkley kept needling him as he went down the considerable list of Howard’s environmental accomplishments, “No, you’re not spiritual, Howard,” he insisted. Shanker’s discomfort around the subject was obvious and he continued to be humble simply stating that the environmental work is important to him and really means something.

During the interview, Shanker expressed concern that the spiritual community is not flexing its political muscles. “I know politics can be distasteful,” he said, “but if the spiritual community would get involved, by voting and donating money, it can have a massive impact on who gets elected and how things change.”

To learn more about Howard’s campaign, his environmental triumphs, positions on the issues, or to donate money, visit
Corinne Casazza is a freelance writer living in Sedona, and can be reached at


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