Livingston -- The Church Universal and Triumphant is planning a logging operation on its 8,500-acre Royal Teton Ranch at Corwin Springs, land that many church members -- and the church itself -- say is sacred.
Though the church agrees that "substantial funds will be generated" through the logging, it says its main goal is to promote forest health, reduce fire danger and improve wildlife habitat on the Royal Teton Ranch.
"What we contemplate is a long-term program to sustain the health of our sacred land," the church's three presidents said in a Wednesday letter to members. "This forest management program may take as long as 10 years. If the objective was mere generation of funds, we would not be taking such a long-term approach."
The presidents are Kate Gordon, Ken Frazier and Neroli Duffy. The news isn't going over well with some church followers, and one of them, a Livingston lawyer, is considering filing suit against the church he has paid tithes to since 1979.
Dana Christian pointed out that church members donated money and time to the purchase of the Royal Teton Ranch and he said they should be consulted before the church starts sawing logs.
"It's a nice, beautiful forest," Christian said. "And they're our trees. They're not Kate Gordon's trees."
He supplied the text of a 1989 speech from church founder Elizabeth Clare Prophet to her followers.
"You paid for this land," Prophet said. "You own this Royal Teton Ranch free and clear, every inch of it. And that money was hard earned and you made sacrificial gifts."
The church has long promoted the Royal Teton Ranch as a holy place, one selected for the church by God and celestial beings known as Ascended Masters.
"This is a sacrilege to the CUT members," said Kenneth Paolini, a former long-term member of the church who has become a critic of the New Age organization. "No matter what kind of spin you put on it, they're logging in a sacred area."
Christian said he has it on "good authority" that the church plans to sell up to $3 million worth of logs.
By comparison, the Gallatin National Forest is planning 11 timber sales harvesting about 20 million board feet over several years over the entire forest and expects to generate about $2.7 million.
Church spokesman Chris Kelley said Dana's numbers are inaccurate because the land hasn't even been evaluated yet.
"We can't estimate what this is going to bring until we do an evaluation," Kelley said.
The church bought 12,000 acres near Corwin Springs in 1981. It sold to the U.S. Forest Service or placed conservation easements upon about 7,800 acres in 1999 for $13 million. No logging or other development can take place on the conservation land the church retained.
The church recently sold another ranch for $12 million. With that kind of money, the church leaders shouldn't have to sell logs, Christian said.
"Continued mismanagement is why they continue to need more and more cash infusions," he said.
Kelley insisted that earning money is not the goal. Rather, improving forest health is the goal, he said.
Other than the housing developments along the Yellowstone River and the extensive complex of bomb shelters in an upper meadow, the church has done little development of its property in the 20 years it has owned it. Church officials have often maintained that the ranch contains a smaller percentage of developed areas than does neighboring Yellowstone National Park.
The land needs to be managed, Kelley insisted. "We're going to be looking at the overall property and seeing what needs to be done. I think we're approaching this in a very conscientious way."
The church has contracted with Dan Pittman, a private forester from Clancy, who helped the church treat a spruce budworm outbreak on the ranch in the mid-1980s, Kelley said, and did so without dangerous chemicals commonly used then.
Pittman has designed logging projects for private landowners who have placed their land under conservation easement, Kelley said.
"This is not a money driven project," Kelley said, adding that the logging could cost money in some places while generating money in others.
Bob Dennee, lands specialist for the Gallatin National Forest, said the Forest Service has some concerns about how the logging will affect grizzly bear habitat on the ranch, especially if new roads are built. Otherwise, he said forest officials are waiting to see details on the sale.
The Forest Service is also preparing to swap about 1,000 acres of public land for 1,000 acres of church land, most of it in small parcels on the Royal Teton Ranch. Dennee said he believes the logging wouldn't take place until after the swaps are complete.