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A Range Of Debate : The Scenic Slopes of Mt. Shasta Have Sparked a Battle Among Residents Who Count on It to Feed Their Bodies and Souls : When I first caught sight of Shasta, I was 50 miles away and afoot, alone and weary. Yet my blood turned to wine, and I have not been weary since. --John Muir, 1874

September 07, 1994|EDWARD SILVER | LOS ANGELES TIMES

MT. SHASTA CITY, Calif. — Mt. Shasta is a wonderland of sounds: the wind refreshing the pine and cedar trees and a particularly sweet, palpable silence.

A group of Native American women are cloistered in the shifting quiet, pondering a move to higher ground. But a Shasta nation medicine woman asks them to stay put at a low-elevation campground. She treks higher only on spirit quests, she says, and has stood at tree line only seven times. "To look upon our creator," Mary Carpelan says, "one stands at a distance."

Gloria Gomes, a Wintu Shasta member, raises her arms as if to encompass the trees, the wildflowers, the distant ranges. "This is our church, all of it," she says.

The women have gathered on a midsummer's day to discuss the campaign to list Mt. Shasta on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its religious and cultural value to Native Americans. The Keeper of the Register granted eligibility status to the mountain in March, and opponents of the designation have geared up for a fight before the decision becomes final.

An avalanche that wrecked a ski park in 1978 was Shasta's answer to insult, the women say. The federal designation would ensure that a worse desecration never comes to pass: a proposed 1,690-acre ski resort at Shasta's upper reaches, bringing parking lots and sewage systems as well as a payroll.

The women believe the quiescent volcano is already aggrieved and angered. "I don't think anybody would appreciate putting an outhouse on an altar," Carpelan says. "If they continue, she's gonna blow."

Shasta, a 14,162-foot, double-cone volcano near the Oregon border, is the dominant landmark of Northern California. It rises like a lonely sentinel at the southern brink of the Cascades, the youngest link in the Ring of Fire that includes Mt. St. Helens. Religious traditions spanning ageless Native American to upstart New Age consider Shasta holy. Environmentalists honor it as a wilderness shrine.

"Mt. Shasta is one of the sacred mountains of the world, similar to Mt. Fuji, the Himalayas, Kilimanjaro," says Mt. Shasta City resident Michelle Berditchevsky. "People come here and they feel something special. Sometimes they can't put their finger on what it is or what to call it because our society doesn't have names for those things, it doesn't recognize that some things are sacred."

Shasta is also arguably the most awesome peak within strolling distance of a major interstate. Highway 5 makes it an easy excursion for pilgrims, and they have come. Tourists, developers, lawsuits and the Department of Corrections--civilization itself--have come as well.

A state proposal to build a prison near Weed, nine miles up the road in Siskiyou County, has combined with the historic district debate to hone a vague sense of discord among townspeople already divided by culture, generation and class. The old-timers have shrunk to a minority, supplanted by urban refugees and New Agers. Galleries and upscale restaurants are the beachheads of a slow gentrification. As the logging economy withers, visions for the future diverge. Suspended in this gulf is the question of what the mountain is for.

Even preservationists recognize that Shasta is what draws visitors to this tourism-dependent town. But they believe that vigorous, ecologically sound businesses can be built around an intact mountain. The more traditional bloc worries that if the environmentalists and Native Americans gain more ground, their stranglehold will ensure economic despair.

"We believe that this place is about creating a certain quality of life that has been paved over elsewhere," says Berditchevsky, a former L.A. college teacher who coordinates the Save Mt. Shasta citizen's group. "Rivers, meadows, mountains are useful, but they are also an expression of the Earth as a living being."

She and others envision a community of small businesses that enhance rather than corrupt the area's beauty. The town should put its energy into the arts, healing and retreat facilities. Already, there are plans for a Mt. Shasta Health Consortium and a botanical "theme park" that would refine visitors' understanding of nature.

"If we go toward quality of life and healing and local ownership, we will really have something unique," Berditchevsky says. "If we gear our efforts toward skiing and prisons, we'll be just like anywhere else."

City Councilman Jerry White leads the charge to overturn the mountain's listing. Sifting through a stack of documents and building his argument as a lawyer might, he says the Keeper's decision was illegal.

He launches a litany of criticism: It violates the separation of church and state. It relies upon suspect assertions of the Native Americans' historical use. It abuses the rights of private property owners in the designated area. And above all, the mountain "belongs to all of us."

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