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On the hot seat: J . B. Downing of EcoCorps fielded questions last week at a meeting in Occidental to clarify the motives and goals of the San Franciscobased environmental organization.
Photo by Michael Amsler
Discord grows at Ocean Song Farm and Wilderness Center as rumors rage about a Krishna connection.
By Greg Cahill and Sara Peyton
IT JUST DIDN'T feel right. From the start, Raoul Goff, his three brothers, and their colleagues--with their "BMWs, cell phones, and cartel ponytails," as one local describes them--stood out starkly amid the slow pace and quaint Victorian storefronts along the quiet streets of Occidental, a small west county hamlet best known for its Italian restaurants and as a refuge for old-time hippies.
But it wasn't just the newcomers' stylish dress or their sometimes arrogant manner that seemed out of place to folks hanging out around the popular Union Hotel saloon. There also were persistent rumors that Goff, a 35-year-old Sonoma County native, and some of his cohorts--who last year bought into a non-profit public trust that includes a kids' camp, ecology center, redwood groves, oak woodlands, and grassy ridgetops--are devotees of the Hare Krishna faith, a secretive sect with a checkered past.
Some grumbled that Ocean Song's new partners had concealed that fact.
Yet, when Raoul Goff first rode into town last year as the head of EcoCorps, he was touted as a savior. His San Franciscobased environmental organization--which also has projects in Hawaii and India--paid $575,000 to buy half of the struggling Ocean Song Farm and Wilderness Center, tucked away in the rolling coastal hills along scenic Coleman Valley Road and regarded as the crown jewel of the county's environmental scene.
Pieter Meyers, a generous west county environmentalist who already had donated $1 million worth of land and "forever wild" conservation easements, had been assured by EcoCorps that it would continue the mission of the renowned ecology center when he sold the property in July 1995 to raise cash.
Meyers, who donated the other half of the property to the Heirloom Land Trust, now says the deal has gone sour and he feels "duped" by EcoCorps.
Today, EcoCorps and the Heirloom Land Trust share in a co-tenancy agreement. Representatives from both organizations hold seats on the Heirloom Land Trust board of directors, which is chaired by Goff and controlled by EcoCorps. Sources say that plans were under way earlier this month to transfer title of the property exclusively to EcoCorps, which would have been able to pick up Ocean Song for half of market value, after Ocean Song was "pushed" by its the new partners to spend $100,000 in matching funds for improvements.
EcoCorps representatives deny any such plan existed, and several board members now say they will not support the move.
And then there are those unsettling Krishna rumors. In the sale agreement, EcoCorps promised to promote "a non-sectarian view of spirituality" and its relation to nature. But shortly before the deal was consummated, a Santa Rosa attorney working pro bono for Ocean Song discovered that one of Goff's companies was printing Krishna-related books.
Ocean Song board members asked Goff about his Krishna connection. Goff denied having any link to the Hare Krishna church.
But Goff never mentioned later that an Internal Revenue Service tax exemption document filed by EcoCorps in October 1995 lists the organization as a church and an "outgrowth" of the worldwide Hare Krishna movement. It also notes that in 1980 Goff became head priest and temple leader at a Krishna center in the Bay Area.
More on that later.
For now, suffice to say that the state Attorney General's Office is "looking into" the possibility that EcoCorps has breached the terms of the agreement. "We'll certainly take a look at this from a charitable trust enforcement standpoint to see if there is a problem," says Carol Kornblum, who heads up the attorney general's non-profit corporation enforcement unit in San Francisco.
The fate of the Four Winds Ropes Course is left hanging.
A Somber Note
One year after local press reports touted EcoCorps as a white knight, the spectacular 340-acre Ocean Song Farm--the proposed centerpiece of a vast coastal network of publicly accessible hiking trails--is deep in debt and appears headed for imminent financial collapse. The staff, board of directors, and longtime community supporters are in turmoil as they ponder the future of the retreat.
Many now say EcoCorps has taken them for a ride.
"EcoCorps has played a major part in the financial collapse of this organization," says David Berman, the environmental center's education director, sounding a somber note. "If there is an intention on the agenda of EcoCorps to take over this project, I feel we will need community support and intervention to help us make it through . . . this difficult time."
Part of the apprehension in the community is brought on by staff reports that Raoul Goff's brother Jean Louis had bulldozed part of Ocean Song Farm's lush landscape at midnight to make unauthorized road improvements and that Raoul Goff had told one top staffer that it was OK to exceed the county's restrictions on the number of people allowed on the property because "no one's going to know anyway."
Goff was preparing to leave the country last week and declined to comment on this article.
The situation at Ocean Song--including the reports of changes being made without county permits in an unincorporated area where that is a extremely touchy subject--has galvanized neighbors and the surrounding community who for years have supported its unique ecology-centered programs, which now appear to be in jeopardy.
"This is one of the most beautiful areas in the county," says Richard Charter, executive director at Sonoma Land Trust, which holds conservation easements on two-thirds of Ocean Song Farms. "It's clustered with the county Open Space easements. It's an incredible scenic corridor."
It is Ocean Song's trusted and long-standing ties to the area that makes Berman feel compelled to speak out now. "Over the past eight years, I have developed relationships with teachers, principals, parents, and children--all of whom look upon this place as a community resource," he says. "The saddest part for me about all this is that the casualties are going to be the kids and their programs.
"This is not about badmouthing EcoCorps," he adds. "It's about preserving Ocean Song as a community resource."
On July 18, the issue of EcoCorps' role at Ocean Song--and the uncertain goals of its new co-owners--came to a head at an emotional meeting held at an octagon-shaped "temple" at Ocean Song Farm. It was attended by west county counterculture heavies Bill Wheeler, Sally Rasberry, and Delia Moon. A vast ocean view greeted about 50 Ocean Song staff members, EcoCorps representatives, neighbors, and others as they walked toward the single-story building, the pristine land stretching seemingly forever.
Everyone removed their shoes before entering. People sat on the floor in a circle, backs against the wall as they listened to Ron Karp, who until a month ago served as executive director at Ocean Song Farm, read aloud from the IRS document that also lists Stan Temple--an EcoCorps official and occasional visitor to Ocean Song--as being the organization's "head priest."
EcoCorps' unblinking representative, J. B. Downing, a young, freckle-faced woman with wide eyes, white cotton T-shirt, and worn jeans, listened attentively. She then defied anyone present to find a link between EcoCorps, its publishing ventures, and the Krishna faith, even though she read a statement from Temple, admitting that the EcoCorps retreat in Hawaii is a church, but insisting it is a wholly separate entity from EcoCorps in San Francisco. To avoid further confusion, Downing noted that the EcoCorps board is changing the name of the Hawaiian church to Earth Aware.
Still, community support for Ocean Song has changed to concern as news of those alleged Krishna connections has filtered through town. "I am always ready to be a good neighbor. Hare Krishnas used to come up in the old days, as we call the '60s, and dance and play music as we did our evening milking," says Bill Wheeler, an Occidental painter and Coleman Valley Road neighbor. "But serious questions remain concerning the circumstances under which they bought into Ocean Song and the Heirloom Land Trust."
The Krishna Connection
Although Goff has never been implicated or convicted of any crime related to Krishna activities, there are other groups that have run afoul of the law. And that's what has some Occidental residents freaked out.
First, a little history. In the 1970s, the Hare Krishnas--with their shaven heads, saffron robes, and ecstatic chanting and dancing--became a familiar sight on street corners and at airport terminals. Adherents say they found in this strand of Hinduism a level of spiritual discipline sorely lacking in the Western religions. Detractors pegged it as a dangerous cult that brainwashed devotees.
At its peak, the movement--operated by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)--boasted 5,000 hardcore devotees living in 30 temples nationwide. But the 1977 death of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the Indian guru who in 1966 brought the Krishna faith to New York, left a void in the organization. Coincidentally, Prabhupada had paid a visit to the Morningstar Ranch commune near Ocean Song that same year and recruited 10 devotees, some of whom are still among ISKCON's top officials.
After his death, Prabhupada was replaced by a succession of gurus, each eventually forming his own charismatic splinter group.
By the 1980s, some renegade Krishnas had become involved in a string of murders, in stockpiling illegal weapons and cash, and in committing robberies and other crimes--the most glaring of which are chronicled in Monkey on a Stick: Murder, Madness, and the Hare Krishnas (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), co-authored by John Hubner and Lindsey Gruson.
In the North Bay, sheriff's deputies from Lake and Mendocino counties between 1980 and 1986 raided the 480-acre Mount Kailasa farm, a Krishna splinter group based outside of Hopland, recovering a cache of guns, stacks of human silhouette targets, stolen goods, and a briefcase full of disguises.
During that time--one of the most volatile periods of Hare Krishna history--the then-teenaged Goff studied about the religion with Hans "Hansadutta" Kary, one of the most controversial gurus in the Hare Krishna movement. Between 1978 and 1980, Kary held the highest spiritual authority within the ISKCON organization, but in 1986 he became embroiled in a $2 million lawsuit, with the Berkeley temple charging that he had tried "to seize control of the personal and real property assets of the Mount Kailasa Foundation to convert them to his own personal use."
Kary, who now lives in northern Sonoma County, denied the charges. He was later excommunicated from the church.
He agrees that Goff is no longer affiliated with ISKCON, a contention supported by ISKCON officials in Los Angeles and splinter Krishna groups elsewhere. But sources say Goff continues to actively practice the Krishna faith, recently switching gurus and changing his spiritual name from Rahugana to Ram Dass.
Several former Krishna associates question Goff's commitment to environmentalism. "A Krishna is a Krishna is a Krishna," says one former religious associate, who has known Goff for years. "They could care less about the environment. All they care about is getting converts."
On July 11, ISKCON--now numbering about 1,000 central devotees and another 50,000 occasional worshippers--marked its 30th anniversary with what church officials say is a new spirit of change. The movement now runs a variety of legitimate business interests, including a chain of vegetarian restaurants, an international relief program, and a publishing firm.
But suspicions about the activities of ISKCON splinter groups persist. In a recent New York Times article, Marcia R. Rudin of the International Cult Education program dismissed those changes as a public relations ploy. "They want to appear very mainstream," she noted. "All the cults are very P.R.-minded."
One of the most popular Krishna activities is real estate, says Kary, who last saw Goff in India in 1993. "They put up one front, doing business as a non-profit, which appears to be in line with what people are comfortable with. It often turns out that the Krishnas are basically misrepresenting themselves. In the early days, it was because the Krishnas were young. But that shouldn't happen anymore--we're all grown up now."
Joe Kelly, a self-described ex-cult member who works in Pennsylvania with devotees interested in leaving the Hare Krishna church, says Krishna affiliates, especially the smaller groups, have looked to land acquisition as one quick way to gain wealth.
"There's an idealistic primitive romantic notion that we all need to get back to nature," he says.
While EcoCorps officials are publicly trying to distance themselves from the Krishna religion, including their own Hawaii-based church, its San Franciscobased office continues to promote Krishna concepts.
The EcoCorps office is located above a large lighting showroom in the heart of San Francisco's trendy SOMA nightclub district. It is decorated with rattan furniture, Asian art, and potted palms. A table outside the office holds brochures for EcoCorps, Ocean Song Farms, and Manipur, which the literature describes as "a lost kingdom" in northeastern India. EcoCorps also sponsors a temple restoration project in Vrindaban--the spiritual center of the Krishna movement in India--and shares the spacious suite with Palace Press International, which prints Krishna books, and Mandala Media, which publishes a catalog of books devoted to "cultural preservation."
When an Independent reporter calls EcoCorps' office asking for literature linking environmentalism and spirituality--preferably something in league with the Krishnas--a receptionist gushes, "That's absolutely what Mandala Media does!"
Indeed, it is. The colorful Mandala Media catalog includes a number of Krishna-related books, art prints, children's coloring books, and calendars. Violet-baby deities, elephant gods, and Indian mystics abound, as do Hindu religious texts. The catalog even boasts that an "exciting new line of beautifully illustrated children's books presents a charming and endearing narrative of the pastimes of Krishna"--a sort of pseudo-spiritual version of "My Little Pony."
Then there are all those World Wide Web links. Type "EcoCorps" into the Netscape browser on the computer and you'll be referred to the World Vaishnava Association membership list, which includes a host of Krishna-related ashrams and EcoCorps' Hawaiian church. Or type in "Bhakti"--the keyword for Krishna--and you'll get an invitation to visit the EcoCorps home page.
And then there's that IRS document. It lists the names and backgrounds of top EcoCorps officials--including Goff, a former head of the San Francisco Krishna temple--and states that they have formed their independent organization "for the express purpose of offering the philosophical and practical knowledge of the 500-year-old Chaitanya Vaishnava religion (known in the West as Krishna Consciousness or "Hare Krishna") to the general public. . . . The primary objectives of EcoCorps are (1) to teach all members of the public the importance of linking with God (Krishna) through service to Him, (2) to demonstrate practically how to engage in His service in the course of one's everyday life, and (3) to provide an opportunity to so engage in God's service."
The Master Plan
Back at Ocean Song Farm, the brand-new executive director, Lynn Fitch, has placed a blanket over the architectural model of the property that shows some of EcoCorps' lofty development plans. She came to Ocean Song last month from Alaska after working on a recycling program.
At her new job, she has walked into a financial and public relations disaster.
Fitch is responsible for implementing EcoCorps seemingly ambitious plans and is stunned by the community concern. "I'm shocked at the level of fear in Sonoma County," Fitch says, commenting on the flap over Goff's Krishna beliefs.
The proposed master plan, submitted to the county three months ago, includes a two-story dormitory, additional housing for staffers, and cabin facilities for 100 children and adults. Currently, no more than 100 people are allowed on-site at any given time, including staff.
The plan ruffled the feathers of west county Supervisor Ernie Carpenter, who met recently with representatives of Ocean Song to discuss the proposed changes. "We don't want this to be Big Sur north," he says. "The county Board of Supervisors legalized Ocean Song as a wilderness primitive retreat because of community support. From my point of view, we'll get back to where we were [by downsizing the master plan] and it will be more primitive and suitable to children and day camping."
County planners have asked Ocean Song to complete the work in three stages, first by bringing existing structures into compliance with county ordinances, then constructing new water and septic systems, and finally constructing new office, staff, and visitors' buildings.
"Right now, Ocean Song is coming in with specific drawings, and that's what we're looking at to see if they are in substantial compliance to what was previously approved," says county planner Kathi Jacobs. "The latest site plan is much larger than anyone had foreseen."
EcoCorps reportedly has asked its architect to go back to the drawing board to rework the plans. But some Ocean Song staff members say EcoCorps is still pushing ahead to evict the company that runs a top-rated ropes course on the land (see sidebar), to eliminate the farm animals used to teach kids, and to end the youth nature programs--all to make way for a convention center. Already, sources say, EcoCorps has started excavating a lake without a county permit and has placed a large lawn, comprised of commercial sod, in the middle of Ocean Song's prestigious two-acre organic garden--a move that could threaten the center's organic gardening certification required by deed restrictions placed on the Heirloom Land Trust.
Fitch says that immediate plans call only for upgrading the property's septic and water systems and improving the road that runs through the property.
Contrary to reports by Ocean Song staffers that EcoCorps plans to eliminate key programs, Fitch says, she wants to build on the existing environmental education programs. "My vision is to really help solidify the programs here so they become more interwoven," she says, adding that she took her job because she was "intrigued" by EcoCorps' concept of eco-tourism.
"The excitement for me is in the relationship that Ocean Song has with an international environmental group and what the future might hold for that," she adds.
What does Pieter Meyers, who just wanted to find a buyer to carry out his environmental vision, think about all the brouhaha? "I am mad. The reason I am mad is this: We were misled. We said clearly that we didn't want any religious affiliation," says Meyers, 57, a graphic artist and land-use expert whose home sits on the over 350 acres adjacent to Ocean Song Farm. "The lesson in all of this is that you've got to do your homework. We could have set up a strong, iron-clad contract. Instead, EcoCorps overpowered us and the Heirloom Land Trust board. The board must share some responsibility in this. I mean, I like those people, but they did not do their job.
"They just weren't savvy enough to catch this."
Staff reporter Bruce Robinson contributed to this article.
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From the July 25-31, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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