BOZEMAN, MONT., AUG. 23 -- Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., on a brief visit to Yellowstone National Park Wednesday, appeared to contradict what Yellowstone officials have been saying about a neighboring religious sect, and he startled some of them with a comment about forest fires there.
Lujan, whose domain includes national parks, said that the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT) does not threaten the nation's oldest national park and that fires that swept the park two years ago made it appear "devastated."
Yellowstone officials have been carrying a different message to the public on both issues.
Today, Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) toured the church's ranch and fallout shelters as part of a federal task force that he formed to review CUT's activities. He said even church leaders recognize that they are in a sensitive area because of proximity to the park and could threaten wildlife.
The church owns 12,000 acres along Yellowstone's northern boundary. Last year, members constructed the massive shelters in a mountain meadow and were poised to enter them last March and April based on a prophecy by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, their spiritual leader, that nuclear attack was imminent.
For years, Yellowstone officials have said the church's developments threaten migration patterns for elk, bighorn sheep, antelope and grizzly bears. They also have said a well drilled by the church to tap into geothermal aquifers could threaten park geysers.
In late April, 31,000 gallons of diesel fuel and gasoline leaked from three fuel tanks near the shelters. Only 12 gallons reached a stream where cutthroat trout spawn, and the church has cooperated with the state in a spill cleanup.
The state filed suit Monday in state district court, saying all of the church's developments should be subjected to environmental review and charging that it has engaged in "a pattern of secrecy, deceit and intentional evasion" of the law in its development plans. The church has said it is cooperating fully on environmental matters.
On Wednesday, Lujan met with Prophet, then said the church's activities pose no threat to Yellowstone. He said he initiated the meeting to have the church and park officials negotiate their conflicts.
"I wanted to understand their point of view," Lujan said at a meeting with reporters at the park. "There are problems, but they are not insurmountable problems."
Williams said today that he was not surprised by Lujan's comments. "Manny's a good friend, but sometimes he's too easily convinced," Williams said.
Lujan's description to reporters of Yellowstone as "devastated" by the fires of 1988 contradicted a two-year effort by park officials, who have teamed with tourism representatives from Montana, Wyoming and Idaho to try to explain that fires did not devastate the park but were a natural phenomenon. Park employees winced when Lujan used the word "devastated."
"He must not understand the issues to make statements like that," said Jeanne Marie Souvigney of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a regional environmental group.
Steven Goldstein, a spokesman for Lujan, said in Washington today that park officials will not be told to change their public statements about the church as a result of Lujan's visit.
"Don't take the comments of the secretary as support for the church. What the secretary was stating clearly was he believes it's important to work together and try and reach conciliation," Goldstein said.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said he wrote a letter today to Lujan saying his comments in Yellowstone "reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of two of the most serious issues facing the land and people" of the region.