A Power Struggle: Electric vs. Spiritual


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.

“It’s a very sacred place,” said Vern Johnson, a Pit River member and executive director of the California Council of Tribal Governments. “Young people have threatened to lay down in front of the heavy equipment if it comes to that.”

A power plant at Medicine Lake would be as inappropriate as a McDonald’s, said John Mike, 43, another Pit. “It would probably take the spirit out of that place.”

Regulators don’t necessarily disagree.

An environmental report concludes that the plant’s effects on air, water and wildlife are negligible, but it says Native American values could be undermined. And there’s no way to fix it. Plumes of steam and noise could interrupt vision quests, the report says, and the siphoning of geothermal waters “may adversely affect the spiritual qualities of Medicine Lake.”

“It would be like a Catholic going to confession and someone opening the door,” said Jerald Jackson, a Modoc elder.

Jackson says he needs the lake now more than ever. For the past year, cancer has been eating away his bone marrow. He’s receiving medical treatment near his home in Klamath Falls, Ore., but believes Medicine Lake has “kept me alive so far.”

But a few Native Americans of the north state find it hard not to doubt.

“That healing power and all that is baloney; that went out in the 1900s,” said Erin Forrest, longtime leader of the Hewitt band, one of 11 branches that make up the Pit River Tribe.

Forrest, who supports Calpine, contends the Pit River hierarchy is holding out for big royalty money from the energy firm. Pit River elders discount such claims as sour grapes from a loser in tribal political wars.

An even nastier rift has erupted within the Shasta Nation. The tribe has split in two, with one band backing Calpine, the other opposed.

To entice support, Calpine has dangled the prospect of college scholarships and jobs if the project comes online. It has already provided legal services and an ethnographer, Shasta leaders say, to help with the tribe’s slogging 20-year effort to gain federal recognition.

Offering help to a local community is standard practice to spur support for a large industrial project, said Joe Ronan, Calpine’s government and regulatory chief. “It’s just,” he said, “how this stuff works.”

What won over Betty Hall, a Shasta elder who supports Calpine, was coming to terms with 21st century reality. Today, the shores of Medicine Lake are scattered with dozens of cabins and three campgrounds. On summer afternoons, it roars with power boats and personal watercraft. “The truth is,” Hall said, “the damage is already done.”

Rob and Janie Painter, who own a vacation cabin on the lake, don’t dispute that recreational users leave footprints, but they say it doesn’t compare to a power plant’s stomp on the landscape. “It’s being pushed down a lot of people’s throats,” Janie Painter said.

Bush administration officials aren’t about to step in the way. The only hope of stopping the Fourmile Hill project is in the courts, opponents say.

Meanwhile, a second geothermal plant, which was rejected by federal officials in 2000, is suddenly back on the table. Under an agreement to settle a legal case brought by Calpine, Washington must by November reconsider allowing a facility at Telephone Flat, about a mile from the lake.

If it isn’t approved, Calpine can take the dispute back to court to seek the $100 million in damages it has claimed.

Such threats have federal officials feeling boxed in. Sean Hagerty, a Bureau of Land Management geothermal expert, said the Bush administration “doesn’t want to pay a company to not produce power in a state that needs power.”

Calpine has already sealed a deal with the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Ore., to buy geothermal energy from Medicine Lake, and it has won approval for $49 million in state subsidies to be slowly meted out once the plants begin generating electricity. The state is providing an additional $1 million for exploratory drilling.

Opponents cast this arrangement as a bitter irony: power subsidized by California taxpayers being exported out of state. Calpine’s Miller countered that Bonneville sells energy to California utilities all the time. As for the prospect of state subsidies, he said it has helped keep the company on course as costs jumped with legal and regulatory delays.

In time, Miller added, all concerned will “learn to live with what we’re bringing to the area.”

Such talk rankles the Modoc tribe’s Jackson, a quiet man of peaceful intent.

This month, he will be back up to the highlands for a ceremony at the stronghold of Captain Jack. Drums will play atop the lava beds. Political talk, normally avoided at such events, may be unavoidable.

Just a few miles up the rise, Calpine will be boring into Mother Earth, trying to tap her essence.

“It brings back old anger from what happened years ago,” Jackson said. “Resentment and anger. We try to tell our young people, don’t feel that way. It ain’t going to help. But now we can’t help but feel that way too.”