Medicine Lake Highlands

The Medicine Lake Highlands region is a volcanic area located in northeastern California, 30 miles east of Mt. Shasta. It contains a variety of natural features, including forests, lakes, springs, caves and lava flow. The Pit River tribe, also located in Southeastern California, believes that the Medicine Lake highland region is sacred land; the tribe has been using this region for ceremonial purposes such as vision quests and prayer. Traditionally, the area was considered a sanctuary, where tribal members put down their weapons to be calmed and cleansed by the land and water. This way of life has been sustained for over 10,000 years. However, this indigenous way of living is becoming irrelevant in the context of modern society.

Economic growth combined with an increase in population calls for a greater need to use natural resources. In order to cope, more efficient means of creating energy are invented. One of these means is geothermal energy, which uses heat from the earth to generate electricity. The highland region is a prime location for a geothermal plants due to the amount ofAlthough the highlands are within the Pit River Tribe’s ancestral homelands, they are not part of the tribe’s reservation. The Geothermal Steam Act of 1970 allows the Secretary of the Interior to “issue leases for the development and utilization of geothermal steam” on federal land and in national forests. In the mid-1980s, without consulting local tribes, the Bureau of Land Management granted the corporation 43 leases covering 66 square miles in the highlands of Northeastern California. In 1996, Calpine Corp. began consulting with tribes about their plans for two new geothermal power plants at Medicine Lake, plans that the environmental impact statements said would forever damage native traditional uses as well as the pristine environment. Two parties, The Pit River Tribe and the Native Coalition for Medicine Lake Highlands Defense, filed appeals and lawsuits against the corporation, using the aforementioned plans as their evidence.
Despite what appear to be ecologically clean business ethics, the impact of Calpine’s plants extends far beyond desecrating sacred land. Calpine Corporation is the world’s largest supplier of geothermal energy. The corporation advertises itself as environmentally friendly; according to the Calpine Corps. web site and annual report, Calpine aims to deliver “clean, reliable power.” The company states that it has the lowest emissions of all U.S. power companies, and in 2004, the University of Colorado selected Calpine for a sustainable business award for its environmental performance. However, geothermal energy has the potential to stimulate a loss of plants life, emit air emissions of toxic hydrogen sulfide, boron, mercury and arsenic, and cause groundwater contamination. Water pollution is another concern. The pure waters of the Medicine Lake highlands feed into the California aqueduct system, which if contaminated would taint water for millions of users throughout the state.

In addition to environmental damage, the geothermal plants intrudes on a relatively untouched region of California wilderness. “The Medicine Lake Highlands are a landscape of the spirit,” said Michelle Berditschevsky, Environmental Coordinator for the Pit River Tribe. “This area is critical to the cultural continuity of tribes near and far, as well as to people from all over the nation, because it symbolizes a world view that must be preserved at a time when resource extraction seeks to infringe on everything sacred. It is a place where mystery can be tangibly felt, where industrial blight and noise have not drowned out spiritual qualities. It exudes a feeling of eternity. It represents our sanity and healing, our commitment to keeping beauty and peace alive in our world.” The value of the purity of the Medicine Lake highlands cannot be placed in dollars to the tribe, it is too important to the culture and sacredness of the region to be altered in the drastic manner that Calpine Corporation suggests.
As of the present day, the future of the Medicine Lake highlands remains uncertain. Calpine Corporation has Federal permission to build the plants; however, local municipalities and tribal governments continue to fight to overturn the decision, using the environmental impacts as their main contentions. Unlike other sacred sites, the highlands have been saved for now due to community participation and tribal coalitions. This case perfectly demonstrates the clash between a growing need to support the ever-expanding desires of the modern age and the stagnant need to respect the way of life of the indigenous peoples. Until it is possible to combine the two, this conflict will continue to exist.

~Matt Fry


“SACRED SITE WATCH – Medicine Lake Victory.” Manataka American Indian Council. 9 Nov. 2006. Web. 20 Feb. 2011. .

Zarsky, Lyuba. “Calpine and Medicine Lake Highlands.” Corporate Responsibility For The Protection Of Native American Sacred Sites. Sacred Land Film Project, 2006. Web. 19 Feb. 2011. .

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