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'Almost Heaven' Survivalist Community Pines for Its Founder

Idaho: Bo Gritz created housing development in 1994 for those seeking to elude the Y2K bug and other social ills. But he doesn't live here anymore.

November 14, 1999|NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

KAMIAH, Idaho — On a plateau in central Idaho, Almost Heaven looks a lot like a trailer park.

Scattered among 1,500 acres above the Clearwater River, the "covenant community" is a handful of beautiful homes, plus numerous trailers and tract-style houses. Laundry flaps in the wind at some homes. Old vehicles sit among weeds at others. "No trespassing" signs are everywhere.

The housing development, started by patriot leader Bo Gritz in 1994 as a refuge from urban ills and the predicted chaos of the millennium bug, has stirred concerns among locals that an armed camp of Y2K wackos was moving in. But the results are more banal.

"Right now we are not feeling a whole lot of impact because they are so worried about their own skin," said Larry Nims, a Kamiah business owner who helped found Clearwater Valley Citizens for Human Rights in response to Gritz.

Gritz doesn't live here anymore. The former Green Beret colonel returned to southern Nevada this year after a failed marriage and suicide attempt.

Almost Heaven residents--angered at being portrayed as out-of-touch survivalists--don't cooperate much with journalists.

"They want to make us out to be white supremacists and we aren't," said Barbara Fuller in a brief telephone interview. Fuller and her husband were among the first residents of Almost Heaven.

Instead, they are worried about civil disruptions that might occur because of Y2K computer problems, Fuller said. To cope, the Fullers make their own wind and solar power. They learned alternative medical techniques. They have laid in a long-term supply of food.

"A person should be as self-sufficient as possible all the time," she said. "We're just like everybody else."

A resident who gave his name as Shane Bytheway has lived at Flying Elk--one of the nine related developments Gritz created here--for two years. The house builder moved up from Amarillo, Texas, with his wife and four children.

"I heard about it on the radio," Bytheway said. "We'll be here forever."

He has one regret. "I wish Bo would come back," Bytheway said. "We are all hoping."

To be sure, this is no ordinary real estate development.

Curt Johnson, listed in promotional materials as the person who shows land, declined to show any to reporters. The telephone number for Almost Heaven rings into an answering machine belonging to Claudia Gritz, Bo's ex-wife. She did not return numerous messages.

Residents of Kamiah, a logging community with 1,100 people, are relieved. They once feared the sparsely populated county would be overwhelmed by pistol-packing survivalists who might try to take control of local government.

"They're generally a fairly quiet bunch of people," said Joe Wright, the Idaho County prosecutor.

Nims said most of the new arrivals turned out to be motivated by fear, rather than hatred of the government.

But he worries about next year, especially if the new millennium begins without much disruption.

"I expect some people to move out when the world doesn't fall," Nims said. "Land prices will drop.

"They may want to get out their old agenda of meddling in local affairs," Nims added.

At the Idaho County Courthouse in nearby Grangeville, local officials are no longer being flooded with unusual documents generated by residents of the development.

Some of those documents included affidavits renouncing U.S. citizenship in favor of being "sovereigns" of the "Idaho State Republic."

"It's really died down," said Rose H. Gehring, clerk of Idaho County.

Ron Funk, an appraiser in the county assessor's office, often travels to the subdivisions to evaluate land for tax purposes. Even though opposition to taxes is a major theme in the militia movement, Funk said he doesn't run into problems.

"Most folks who come in there are really nice folks," Funk said.

Idaho County stretches from the Oregon to Montana borders and is the third-largest county by size in the nation. But with fewer than 14,000 residents and virtually no zoning or building restrictions, it is fertile ground for the community of like-minded patriots that Gritz envisioned.

People who bought land pledged to defend the constitutional rights of their neighbors, including taking up arms if authorities came for them. But that hasn't been necessary.

Getting to Almost Heaven isn't easy. There's no nearby commercial airport or interstate highway. The developments are 10 miles from Kamiah and about 170 miles south of Spokane, Wash., on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation.

You have to climb a narrow paved road, the Woodland Grade, into the mountains before coming to a big sign nailed to a tree that says, "Almost Heaven II, Covenant Community."

Next to that is the original Almost Heaven. The other developments are about a mile away.

Land is not cheap. A 2.75-acre lot in Almost Heaven II is listed at $18,547. A quarter-acre in the Almost Heaven RV Park, with sewer, water, electric and phone hookups, costs $13,900.

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