An Angry Publisher Fights to Save the Valley Called Paradise

updated 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Take away the gun racks, the hunting knives and the occasional dead elk protruding from the back of a pickup truck, and the residents of Paradise Valley, Mont., seem an amiable lot. Here, in a stunning setting along the Yellowstone River between Livingston, Mont., and Yellowstone National Park, ranchers and millionaires coexist with Hollywood types such as actors Peter Fonda, Jeff Bridges, Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan. There's enough heart-stopping beauty and prime trout water for all of them.

"Montana has a unique set of values," explains John Sullivan, 44, publisher of the Livingston Enterprise, the area's 3,800-circulation daily newspaper. "People still respect each other's reasons for coming here. They don't interfere."

Until, that is, the paradise they've come seeking is threatened. For nine years Sullivan has been doggedly documenting what has become a bitter dispute between local environmentalists and the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT), a controversial survivalist cult that has bulldozed rolling countryside to put tract housing and mobile homes into 33,000 acres of once-pristine beauty. In danger is not only some of the most picturesque scenery in America but also the fragile ecology of a section of the nation's oldest national preserve. Yellowstone Park officials say CUT's ambitious development and farming practices pose the No. 1 natural resource threat to the park, disrupting prime grizzly bear habitat and the traditional migratory routes of elk, bison, sheep and antelope.

The state of Montana is currently seeking a $50,000 penalty stemming from a 31,000-gallon diesel fuel and gasoline spill from CUT's underground tanks last spring. The spill threatened Mol Heron Creek, a spawning ground for cutthroat trout that feeds into the Yellowstone River.

Sullivan's relentless coverage of the church—and its charismatic leader, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, 51—has roused the community and raised the awareness of public officials. "The Enterprise has kept the story up front and kept us focused on the problem," says Steve Pilcher, Montana's chief of environmental sciences. "John Sullivan is one of the few people who isn't scared of Elizabeth Prophet," says environmental activist Becky Fonda, wife of Peter. "John definitely got her goat. He's like John Wayne."

When CUT first arrived in the valley nearly 10 years ago, Sullivan urged his readers to adopt a "wait and see" attitude about the group, which offers up a mixture of right-wing politics, reincarnation theory and survivalism. More worrisome to locals than the oddball theology were rumors that Prophet's people were stockpiling arms—a charge CUT denied. Fears intensified in July 1989 when Ed Francis, Prophet's fourth husband, was convicted of using an assumed name to try to purchase $150,000 worth of high-powered weaponry. Additional controversy was generated last December when CUT was caught disposing of truckloads of raw sewage within a half mile of the Yellowstone Park boundary. (CUT vigorously denies all allegations of environmental despoilment and claims it is improving relations with its neighbors.)

For his tenacity in publicizing CUT's ecological sins, Sullivan found himself on the church's enemies list, and Prophet's faithful prayed for "bolts of blue lightning" to straighten him out. "It's the worst newspaper in America," fumed Prophet's spokesman and personal astrologer, Murray Steinman. "We don't talk to them." Sullivan responds with editorials and keeps his office copier humming. "Last spring we almost wore out a Xerox machine just duplicating clips for the visiting press," says Sullivan.

Hunched over his oak desk in a spacious office filled with brightly colored Indian beadwork and western sculpture, he directs a staff of six. "It's a challenge for a paper of our size to cover this story," says Sullivan, a native Montanan educated at Stanford who with his family owns four other small Montana papers. Ambling down Main Street for a soft drink at the Sport café, he is frequently stopped by neighbors whispering tips or trading information. "There's a lot of good-natured speculation about what we'll do with a 750-man bomb shelter after they all pull out," Sullivan laughs, referring to the massive bunker Prophet built in preparation for Armageddon.

A bachelor who lives with his 74-year-old mother on an 80-acre spread bordering the Yellowstone River, Sullivan admits he has a personal stake in the outcome of the CUT controversy and doesn't mind saying so. "I moved to the valley for the quality of life," he says. "And we've lost something. It's not as nice to live here as it used to be."

—Maria Wilhelm, Bill Shaw in Paradise Valley

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