A McKenzie Valley retreat wants to keep operating on land zoned for farm use, but opponents cite noise and allege cult activity

The Oregonian, June 25, 1999
By Debra Gwartney

Eugene -- What [one mother] wanted most during the routine zoning hearing at the Lane County Courthouse on Thursday was to talk to her estranged son...

[The mother] and her husband, [the father], traveled to Eugene from their Bay Area home in Lafayette, Calif., to attend the 9 a.m. hearing. They came to tell a Lane County official that a McKenzie Valley wilderness retreat, sponsored by a group called Friends Landing, had been operating illegally for the past three summers and must now be stopped.

The [couple] allege that Whitewind Swan Fisher, the woman who heads Friends Landing and runs the summer retreat, used "manipulation and mind control" to take over their son's life and to pull him away from his family. They couldn't say that at the zoning hearing, however. The hearings officer kept the [couple's] testimony strictly to the land-use issues.

During the hearing, [the estranged son], 22, sat away from his parents, near Fisher. He listened as the couple and 10 others spoke in opposition to a request to turn the 60-acre farm into an "educational retreat" for the summer wilderness sessions.

[The son], who first attended one of the group's sessions three years ago, testified with six others in encouraging the official to grant the request and let the Friends Landing retreat flourish. After the hearing, the recent University of Oregon graduate said it was his decision to become a part of Friends Landing, to live on the farm and become a "dream coach apprentice."

"I have never been kept there in any way against my will," he said.

The rezoning would allow Whitewind Swan Fisher and her husband, Ben Fisher, to continue to hold annual World Dream Camps on property zoned for exclusive farm use. The 12-day sessions, which cost $1,750 per person, are advertised on the organization's Web site as "life-changing events" that allow a participant to "navigate your life clearly and efficiently, manifesting the dreams of your heart."

Those in support of the retreat testified that the sessions provided healthy opportunities for increased self-awareness and diminished stress. The camps focus on long periods of meditation, hiking, baths, herbal remedies, healthy food and group discussions.

But Rick Ross has compared Friends Landing to Heaven's Gate and other cults that use a "composite" approach to spiritual enlightenment by combining Native American, holistic healing, dream analysis and wilderness therapy.

Whitewind Fisher calls herself a "shaman teacher of consciousness" and says she has a spiritual "flow of vision," concepts unfamiliar to the longtime residents of Upper Camp Creek Road, located near the town of Walterville.

"This is a rural area. We just don't need this," said Bob Green, who lives near the Fishers' farm.

Attorney Al Couper, who represented the Fishers at the hearing Thursday, said accusations of cult activity were merely tactics to discredit the organization.

"Their hysterical information is trying to impugn the activities that go on there," he said. "But the beliefs of these people and their practices are not on trial."

Residents of the adjacent area, off Camp Creek Road, said the quality of their lives was at stake.

Neighbors testified that they often heard loud drumming and chanting coming from the site during the camps. They also said that an enormous bonfire last summer created a sense of alarm throughout the rural area, much of which is privately owned timberland.

Hearings official Milo Mecham said he would visit the Fishers' farm at 10 a.m. July 2 to gauge noise and traffic levels. The public record will be closed on July 16, and Mecham will issue a decision within 10 days of that date.

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