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Know the West

Grab your place in paradise

  The pearly gates to Montana's Paradise Valley will soon open. The Church Universal and Triumphant, a New Age religious sect headquartered there, wants to sell 3,000 acres of a 10,000-acre Montana ranch that spokesman Christopher Kelley calls "a kind of Mecca." He says the sale will generate cash for "satellite churches' growing around the world.

The sale doesn't surprise those who watch the church. Jeffrey Hadden, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia, says legal bills have depleted the church's financial reserves and members are leaving, forcing it to cut costs. In the late "80s, the church and federal authorities clashed over petroleum leaks, weapon stockpiles and bomb shelters built for a 1990 holocaust predicted by the church's leader, Elizabeth Clare Prophet.

"Occasionally, failed prophecy renews a religious group, but more often it results in disillusioned members," says Hadden. He also reports that Prophet is ill and has family problems.

Wildlife on the land - which extends from the foothill grasslands of the Trail Creek Valley to the Douglas-fir forests of Antelope Butte - could benefit if the church sells to a rancher, says Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Tom Lemke. But developers could also buy the land, in parcels greater than 600 acres.

"If the land is subdivided or bought by one individual who likes his privacy," Lemke says, "public access and state options for managing wildlife won't function." - Taffeta Elliott