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A Power Struggle: Electric vs. Spiritual

Electricity: Indian tribes hope to block construction of a geothermal plant they fear will drain healing force of Medicine Lake.

July 17, 2002|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEDICINE LAKE, Calif. — Under a sky as wide as the world, Willard Rhoades comes to the lake to heal himself.

He wades into turquoise waters frigid with snowmelt, like countless Native American ancestors before him. Tribal lore has it that the Creator bathed in Medicine Lake, and it remains a place of raw spiritual power to elders such as Rhoades, 83. A dunking, he believes, washes away sickness of body and soul.

Now a big energy company has come to tap a different kind of power at Medicine Lake.

Tempted by the geothermal energy that lurks beneath the volcanic wild lands of California's far north, Calpine Corp. hopes to harvest megawatts from generating plants only a few miles from the sacred lake. Exploratory drilling is to begin this week.

Tribal elders question whether the relatively meager energy to be drawn from the Earth justifies wounding a ruggedly beautiful landscape, a place of deep spiritual value to its first inhabitants: the Pit River, Modoc, Shasta, Karuk and Wintun tribes.

Last month, Calpine was sued by a coalition of tribes and environmental groups. They rue the possibility of power lines and exposed pipes snaking into the forest like the arms of an octopus. They worry about tainted steam fouling unsullied air, the groan of industry spoiling the quiet, electrical light pollution blemishing night skies.

Calpine officials say such concerns are unfounded. The $120-million power plant will be clean and quiet, they insist, hidden in the woods and free of but the barest traces of toxic emissions. They will also bring a new generation of jobs to a land of double-digit unemployment.

Still, the company can't mitigate the dismay of Rhoades and other Native Americans. For many, this corporate quest for geothermal power is a 21st century echo of historic persecution by the white man.

"It's the same thing," said Rhoades. "This is a place of healing and meditation, but instead there would be noise and pollution."

The battle is playing out at a precarious time in the energy business, amid ballooning cynicism over the authenticity of last year's California crisis. But for San Jose-based Calpine, the prospects for Medicine Lake are too tantalizing to scrap.

Calpine's armada of new plants fired by natural gas remain susceptible to the price swings of a fickle market for fossil fuels. In contrast, power from a geothermal plant comes with no cost for fuel--and produces 26 times less greenhouse gas. Mother Earth does all the work: Deep pockets of subterranean water are superheated by magma, producing steam to turn turbines.

John Miller, Calpine's program manager, acknowledged that Native Americans have had a long and important affiliation with Medicine Lake. "We're very respectful of that," Miller said. But he said all the land under lease is in national forests, not a tribal reservation. The company's first venture--a 49-megawatt plant--is set for a spot known as Fourmile Hill. Several more geothermal plants could follow. The company recently won a legal battle forcing federal officials to reconsider rejection two years ago of a second plant even closer to the lake. In all, Calpine holds geothermal leases on 66 square miles of Medicine Lake Highlands.

This is a land of geological mystique. The lake is in a six-mile-long crater, the caldera of North America's broadest volcano. Upon that flat backside, the Earth has belched mountains of glistening obsidian and fields of chalky pumice. Lava caves and cinder cones dot the terrain. Native Americans of the area say they have used Medicine Lake as a sanctuary since the Creator descended from nearby Mt. Shasta. It was a place for coming-of-age ceremonies and vision quests. Tribes from all over came to gather obsidian, chipping the shiny black stone into razor-sharp hatchets and spears.

In the 1850s, Gold Rush settlers overran these ancestral lands. History tells of a lopsided fight.

Famine and disease spread. State legislators authorized $1.5 million to suppress the natives, giving rise to bounty hunters. Many Indians were killed or enslaved. California historian Hubert Howe Bancroft called it "one of the last human hunts of civilization, and the basest and most brutal of them all."

The most notorious standoff came in 1872, when a Modoc leader named Intpuash--dubbed Captain Jack by tongue-tied settlers--holed up with more than 50 warriors in caverns north of Medicine Lake. Badly outnumbered, they held off the cavalry for a year before Captain Jack was captured and hanged.

During the century that followed, the region's tribes demonstrated a consistent devotion to their ancestral lands. In the turbulent early 1970s, scores of Pit River tribal members were arrested trying to claim land held by Pacific Gas & Electric and the U.S. Forest Service.

That effort failed, but today the Pit River--with more than 2,000 members--remain a tribe unafraid to take on powerful forces. Out of their base in the mountain town of Burney, they have led the fight over Medicine Lake.

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