Appeals court: Tribe can challenge Medicine Lake Highlands work

A federal appeals court has reinstated a challenge by an American Indian tribe and several other organizations to the Bureau of Land Management’s continuation of 26 geothermal leases in northeastern California’s Medicine Lake Highlands in the Klamath and Modoc national forests.

Medicine Lake Highlands, about 30 miles northeast of Mount Shasta, is one of North America’s most unique geological areas, according to a National Geographic website. It lies within the crater of the Medicine Lake volcano, “a sleeping giant,” which is the largest volcano in the Cascade Range, according to the website. It covers more than 200 square miles in Modoc and Siskiyou counties and encompasses portions of three national forests.

For at least 10,000 years, members of the Pit River Tribe have used Medicine Lake and the surrounding highlands for religious activities such as vision quests, prayers, traditional shaman practices, life cycle ceremonies, the collection of traditional foods and medicine, and spiritual renewal, according to a lawsuit in which the tribe was joined by four other groups to challenge BLM’s continuation of 26 geothermal leases for up to 40 years.

The leases for development of steam energy are held by Houston-based Calpine Corp., the nation’s largest generator of electricity from natural gas and geothermal resources, according to its website. Calpine has been pursuing plans for power plants that would tap the energy that lies underneath the volcanic ground.

The plaintiffs say they all share a common interest in preventing geothermal development, because they consider it inconsistent with their use and enjoyment of the land. At the core of their suit is the contention that “the exploration and development of geothermal leases will interfere” with their cultural, religious and recreational activities at the lake and highlands.

U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez in Sacramento concluded that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue under the Geothermal Steam Act because the act’s lease-continuation provision does not apply to their claims. Mendez rejected the plaintiffs’ other claims on the basis that BLM had no discretion to consider environmental, historical or cultural interests before continuing the leases.

But a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Mendez on Monday and sent the case back to him with directions to proceed with the litigation. The panel ruled that he ignored a section of the Geothermal Steam Act that allows the suit to go forward.

Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189