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California tribes block development near sacred site

A coalition of northern California tribes secured a court victory on Monday in their campaign to protect one of their most important sites.

The Pit River Tribe and the Native Coalition for Medicine Lake Highlands sued to stop the development of a geothermal plant on federal forest land. The highlands are home to the sacred Medicine Lake, which the Pit River, Modoc, Shasta, Karuk and Wintun tribes use for healing powers and to seek spiritual guidance.

After an administrative appeal, the tribes lost at the federal court level in February 2004. A judge said Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service complied with environmental and historic preservation laws and did not violate their trust responsibility.

But in a unanimous decision issued yesterday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. A three-judge panel rejected the extension of leases that would have allowed Calpine Corporation to develop the geothermal plant.

"The agencies never took the requisite 'hard look' at whether the Medicine Lake Highlands should be developed for energy at all," Judge Clifford Wallace wrote for the majority.

Wallace also said the agencies, at a minimum, shirked their fiduciary duties to the tribe by violating environmental and historic preservation laws. But the court stopped short of endorsing broader obligations to tribal nations under the trust relationship.

And in deciding the case on the lease extensions, which were made in 1998, the 9th Circuit largely avoided a politically sensitive issue for the Bush administration and the Republican Party. At the time the tribes were pressing their case, the White House and Vice President Dick Cheney developed an energy policy that called for more development in the West and expedited review of such projects.

Citing the policy, the BLM "unilaterally" lifted an existing moratorium on development in the Medicine Lake Highlands, the court noted. The agency didn't offer any public comment on its decision, made in June 2001 after Calpine filed a lawsuit and engaged in significant lobbying effort of new Republican officials in Washington, D.C.

Almost a year later, the BLM again extended Calpine's leases in May 2002 for another 40 years. "No additional environmental analysis was undertaken in connection with this extension," the court said.

With the support of the Republican-controlled Congress, the White House eventually won passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The law -- in addition to forcing a controversial study of rights-of-way on Indian lands -- made it harder for BLM to reject geothermal leases.

The 9th Circuit ruled that the 2005 act did not affect the Pit River Nation's rights to pursue the case. But the court said its ruling didn't apply to the 2001 or 2002 actions of the Bush administration.

At a June 2003 hearing before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Gene Preston, a Pit River council member, testified against the geothermal. He said the project will yield very little power at the expense of his tribe's cultural survival.

"Where is the equation that says trading our culture is worth the gain?" he told the committee. "The profit is privatized while the impacts become the burden of Native Americans, society, animals and future generations."

Calpine has since declared bankruptcy. Last fall, the company began work on the geothermal plant but was blocked by BLM and the Forest Service after the Telephone Flat Geothermal Project Oversight Committee, made up of tribes and local groups, raised concerns.

9th Circuit Decision:
Pit River Tribe v. US (November 6, 2006)

Lower Court Decision:
Pit River Tribe v. BLM (February 13, 2004)

Relevant Documents:
Proposed Geothermal Development Project for Medicine Lake Highlands - Records of Decision (Bureau of Land Management [note: does not include reversal of decisions])

Relevant Links:
Medicine Lake Video -
Medicine Lake Information -
Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center -
Calpine Corporation -