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Montanans Wary of Church's Plans for Promised Land

January 25, 1987|PETER H. KING | Times Staff Writer

CORWIN SPRINGS, Mont. — Elizabeth Clare Prophet, self-proclaimed Messenger of the Ascended Masters, looked every bit a Montana cattle baroness as she rolled up to the roadside restaurant in a muddy pickup truck equipped with four-wheel drive, tool chest and rifle rack--stock accessories in this highland cow country.

Prophet went inside, took a back table and over coffee explained why her Church Universal and Triumphant has traded balmy Malibu Canyon for the rough and tumble of Montana, endeavoring to raise cattle and inner consciousness on the banks of the Yellowstone River.

"We felt that we were divinely led here," said the 46-year-old Prophet, known to her disciples as Mother or, more informally, Guru Ma.

To Prophet and her people, this is a promised land, a place to satisfy their every need. "You know," she said, volunteering an example, "it is easier to meditate here than it is in Los Angeles. You have 10 million auras in Los Angeles, and here you have wide open space."

Certainly not all of Prophet's new neighbors share her vision. They remain unconvinced that a picturesque mountain grassland on the border of Yellowstone National Park is the best place for the church to build living quarters and other structures necessary to support a self-sufficient, monastic religious community of 500 members.

A few residents straightforwardly admit that they don't cotton to living next to what they consider a cult, a church that believes its leader can and does converse with "ascended masters" ranging from Buddha to Pope John XXIII; they are scared. A larger body claims to be more open-minded on spiritual matters, but nonetheless is concerned that a church community of this size will rob the tiny river valley of scenery and serenity.

"I want people to have a piece of paradise," said a resident of nearby Gardiner, Mont., who floats tourists down the Yellowstone for a living. "But I want them to rent it. I don't want them to buy a piece of it, develop it and then sail it on down to Rio."

These views are fairly predictable, as are the comparisons a few neighbors have tried to draw to the experience of Antelope, Ore., and the contentious occupation there by followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

What complicates the situation here, and may prove to be the most significant threat to the church's exodus, is the close proximity of Prophet's spread to Yellowstone National Park. Parts of the church's 33,000-acre Royal Teton Ranch--including the headquarters where a church, university, houses and and other structures are to be erected--abuts the park.

Concern for Wildlife

Park officials and environmentalists worry that the church buildup will deprive certain wildlife species, especially a 500-head herd of pronghorn antelope, of grasslands vital to their survival during harsher winters.

They say bison, bald eagles and bighorn sheep might also not fare well when forced to coexist with Prophet's followers, livestock and crops. They fear effluent from the river bank community might eventually work its way into the Yellowstone River, threatening fish, despite precautions by the church. Yellowstone officials question, too, whether the church's drilling of a well to tap hot water resources could jeopardize some of the park's spectacular geyser systems.

Church officials have developed counterpoints to all entries in this extensive environmental blotter, and question whether it cloaks a more elemental attempt at religious persecution. Prophet herself offered a spirited general defense of the church's stance on ecological preservation.

"To us," she said, "this land is hallowed ground. . . . There is no other place like it in the whole nation. We are extremely careful with this land. You will not find a cigarette butt on 30,000 acres, a beer can, or a scrap of paper."

Beyond any divine authority she might claim, Prophet has a powerful, if more prosaic, ally in the dispute. It is, after all, the church's land, and in Montana grant deeds are mighty trump cards. With ownership of private property comes sanctuary from government regulators, meddlesome neighbors and any other would-be interlopers.

Weak Land-Use Laws

Park County, where the ranch is located, has weak subdivision laws and no comprehensive land-use plan, and thus no significant jurisdictional entree into the fray.

"As an expression of independence," said Steve Pilcher, chief of the state water-quality bureau, "in particular in rural areas, the people of Montana have opposed land-use planning. They look at it as an infringement of rights."

The reverential attitude toward property rights has reduced the role of church neighbors to spectators at what some of the more blatant pessimists consider their own demise. As one put it: "We feel like we are an island. We have this problem and the rest of the state is laughing at us because we have it, and they don't."

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