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U.S. Forest Service in Arizona Is Stuck Between a Rock and Religious Freedom : Environment: Dispute is over sacred symbols set up on public land. The land belongs to the people, New Agers say, but officials call it vandalism.

April 20, 1991|LEO W. BANKS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SEDONA, Ariz. — Northern Arizona's red rock country is the scene of a growing dispute between the U.S. Forest Service and followers of the New Age movement, who say laws governing the use of public land restrict their religious freedom.

The controversy involves the building of medicine wheels, sweat lodges and other New Age symbols on federal land near Sedona, 120 miles north of Phoenix.

Devotees of the New Age believe in American Indian ideas of achieving harmony and balance in life, and respect for the Earth. But according to Forest Service officials, building medicine wheels--circles of loosely stacked rock that in some cases reach three feet high--or putting anything else on federal land without authorization is against the law, and constitutes vandalism.

"In some areas, these medicine wheels are all over the place," says Bob Gillies, Forest Service district ranger for Sedona, who estimates the number of wheels on public land in the hundreds.

New Age pilgrims, as they are called, say medicine wheels, also known as prayer wheels, are symbols of the Earth's energy and a focal point for prayer. They gather around them to meditate and hold ceremonies.

But Gillies says the wheels destroy what people are there to enjoy. One of the biggest, measuring at least 200 feet across, is on Schnebly Hill near town. To build it, New Agers disturbed rows of malpais rock that had settled through centuries of rain into a rippling pattern on the hill.

"Now it's a sequence of circles, crosses and things like that," says Gillies, whose seven rangers patrol 225,000 acres. "It was a unique and beautiful feature in the red rock country and they destroyed it."

The damage done by removing rocks from their natural place on the landscape is compounded by the added number of pilgrims the wheels attract. The foot traffic disturbs the area's soil, and vegetation is trampled.

"Once a wheel is built, it's impossible to return the area to its natural state," says Gillies.

But New Agers ask who exploits the land more--the Forest Service, by opening federal land to commercial interests, or New Agers building prayer wheels? "The land belongs to the people, not the Forest Service," says tour company operator Rahelio Rodriguez. "It's their right to worship the land as they want. It's not like they're doing black magic out there."

Still, he doesn't like seeing too many wheels on public land, either. "But a few are needed because they fill a public need," says Rodriguez, who calls the wheels peace symbols for the '90s.

Other New Agers contend that Gillies unfairly blames them for whatever destruction occurs. And they say that he has a grudge against the pilgrims because they rallied, thus far unsuccessfully, against a Forest Service plan to build a picnic and camping park on the nearby Crescent Moon Ranch.

"I take exception to Gillies running around bad-mouthing New Agers," says Michael Big Bear, host of a radio show on KQST-FM, a New Age station.

Big Bear also argues that Schnebly Hill has been designated a sacred site by the Native American Church, meaning that under federal law it can be used by American Indians for a sacred purpose. "Whether a prayer wheel or sweat lodge is legal or not depends on who builds it," says Big Bear, who is one-quarter Cherokee.

But Gillies says that no tribe has asked the Forest Service to designate Schnebly Hill a sacred site. "We respect laws governing Native American religious sites," says Gillies. "But we've checked with local tribes on all these things and haven't found one that it is their doing."

Sedona, a town of 11,000 once known mainly as an artists' community and tourist stop on the road to the Grand Canyon, has become a mecca for the New Age.

Central to the philosophy is belief in a vortex, a place in the Earth said to emit special healing energy. Many of the New Age symbols are built near the four vortexes said to exist in Sedona.

Gillies says the public lands problem became widespread four years ago after the Harmonic Convergence, when 10,000 believers in the Mayan calendar--which pinpointed August, 1987, as the start of a new era of consciousness--descended on Sedona.

The controversy shows no sign of abating. More than once, the Forest Service and concerned community groups have removed medicine wheels from public land. But they are rebuilt the next day.

Getting rid of the wheels entirely is a lost cause, says Gary Gilbert, program director at KQST, who added: "The Forest Service doesn't understand that the energy from that wheel is there forever. Tearing it down only makes the energy stronger. Somebody will rebuild it every time."

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