Published on Thursday, November 28, 2002 by the New York Times
U.S. Approves Power Plant in Area Indians Hold Sacred
by Dean E. Murphy
SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 27 — The Bush administration has approved construction of a geothermal power plant in the Modoc National Forest, a remote volcanic field near California's border with Oregon that local tribes consider sacred.
Indians and environmental groups accused the government of betrayal today and said they would fight the decision.
The project, at Telephone Flat, was blocked two years ago by the Clinton administration because of concerns about intrusion on the lands. The plant would be two miles from Medicine Lake, which the tribes believe has healing powers.
In reversing the Clinton administration decision, officials said "the overall interests of the public would be best served" by allowing the project to proceed. Specifically, the decision, released on Tuesday, cited the need for developing renewable energy sources.
Calpine, the utility in San Jose that wants to build the 48-megawatt plant, owns extensive leases for geothermal development in the national forest. Calpine sued the government for $100 million when the project was rejected, but agreed to drop the claim if the Bush administration reconsidered the plan.
Gene Preston, chairman of the Pit River Tribe, one of four near Medicine Lake, said his 2,000 members felt cheated by the reversal.
Two years ago, when the plant was rejected, another geothermal complex proposed by Calpine was approved at nearby Fourmile Hill, just outside the most sacred area. Mr. Preston said the tribe agreed to drop public protests over the Fourmile Hill plant in exchange for a five-year moratorium on additional power projects.
"We sat down and worked out a compromise," Mr. Preston said. "We thought we had five years so that studies could be done and level minds could make more informed opinions. Now that is all moot."
Mark Rey, under secretary for natural resources and environment in the Agriculture Department, which oversees the forest service, said Mr. Preston's complaint was with the Clinton administration.
"I don't know the specifics of this promise because I was not there," Mr. Rey said. "But I can tell you the lion's share of my first year in office has been spent trying to figure out what the outgoing administration promised and whether or not it would be wise public policy to redeem those promises. We are trying to do what is right here."
He said the Calpine suit had heavily influenced the Telephone Flat decision.
"The Justice Department said we are going to lose boatloads of taxpayer money if we don't find a way to give these guys a fairer hearing," Mr. Rey said. "If some folks don't like the decision, the company has already made commitments to make the decision more palatable."
A spokesman for Calpine said it was studying the decision, which included new conditions, including moving the 13-mile power line to run parallel to a Forest Service road and not pass near Medicine Lake.
"There are a number of things that have to be reviewed," the spokesman, David J. Michetti, said.
In approving the plant, the administration rejected the recommendation of the Advisory Council on Historical Preservation, a federal agency that seeks to preserve important cultural and historical places.
About 24 square miles of volcanic fields near Medicine Lake, known as the Medicine Lake Highlands, were declared a traditional cultural district in 1999 and are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. In a letter to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, the advisory council urged denying the plant a permit. "The costs to the historic resources of Native Americans and our nation are too high," the letter said.
The Pit River tribe and others consider Medicine Lake and the surrounding area a spiritual sanctuary. They believe that the creator descended from nearby Mount Shasta and bathed in the lake, giving it healing powers. Medicine men still train there, and coming-of-age ceremonies are conducted there. Many Indians immerse themselves in the lake to cleanse the body and soul.
Mr. Preston said the tribes believed that the geothermal energy, which would be tapped for electricity, had a spiritual origin and should not be tampered with. Already, he said, tribe members wait until nightfall to conduct ceremonies at the lake to avoid motor homes and boaters. A plant at Telephone Flat would further tip the balance toward the outsiders, Mr. Preston said.
"We have to hide in the bushes and wait until everybody is gone and sneak out on the lake," he said. "Our land was taken away initially with land claims, and now they are trying to take our culture and religion."
Deborah Sivas, director of the Earthjustice Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford University, who has represented the Pit River tribe in a suit over Fourmile Hill, said the reversal on Telephone Flat was a big setback. Calpine might view the ruling as a green light to move forward with more geothermal projects, Ms. Sivas said.
"We really perceive this as a policy coming down from Washington to push energy development at whatever cost," she added.
Mr. Preston said he worried about the future of his ancestral lands, as well as the precedent. He said he recently met for three hours with Kathleen Clarke, director of the Bureau of Land Management, and Dale N. Bosworth, chief of the Forest Service.
"They gave me a clear and open opportunity to make our case," Mr. Preston said. "But at the end, they described it as a clash of cultures. They understood our plight and were sympathetic to it. They said they recognize our culture, but also the culture of capitalism."
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