WOODLAND, Idaho – The “No Trespassing” signs increase with the elevation along the Woodland grade until the tiny development of Almost Heaven, where they seem to mark nearly every house and trailer.
But there are few people to keep out of Almost Heaven these days. Interest in the so-called covenant community tapered off years ago after founder James “Bo” Gritz left, and nearby Woodland residents say many of the patriot movement’s most vocal members have long since left as well.
“When Bo Gritz left, things kind of settled down,” said Glenn Simler, a farmer who has lived in the peaceful Quaker settlement of Woodland for all of his 84 years. “The ones that seemed to be troublemakers took off – I don’t really know why. Law enforcement in the area got to them. It just wasn’t a place that fit their ideas.”
Almost Heaven started in the early 1990s with just under 1,000 acres on the rim of the plateau overlooking the Clearwater River. Gritz, a former military man who describes himself as the inspiration for “Rambo,” envisioned a place where like-minded constitutionalists could live, free from excessive government control and safe from crime and other dangers.
Residents of Almost Heaven would simply have to agree to the community covenant, which required that they be God-fearing Christians who would stand and fight with one another should any resident’s constitutional rights be threatened.
Media attention spread news of the effort across the continent, and lots at Almost Heaven soon sold out. It was followed by other nearby developments with names like Shenandoah, Doves of the Valley and Woodland Acres.
Though at first the region’s longtime residents were scared and angered by the influx, live-and-let-live sensibilities prevailed for a time, said Larry Nims, owner of Ida Stone Memorials in nearby Kamiah. Like the Clearwater River and the economy, he said, politics ebb and flow in the region and many locals just tried to ignore Gritz and his followers.
“He really counted on the media attention to sell the property. A lot of people wrote him off as just a salesman and that trivialized it,” Nims said. “It took awhile to get the Prairie people to understand that there were some weirdos in the valley and that they needed to pay attention.”
After all, on the surface the newcomers may not have seemed radically different. The majority of Idaho and Clearwater County residents were from logging, farming or ranching families. Self-reliance was a virtue, and many locals harbored a resentment of the federal government and any other outside influences that they saw as interfering in the local livelihood.
To them, the newcomers seemed like people who just wanted to build a cabin in the woods and be left alone. And the majority of Almost Heaven residents wanted just that, said Gritz, who now lives in Sandy Valley, Nev.
“The entire range of Americana showed up. All we did was increase the economy of Kamiah because we needed groceries and everything that community had to offer. At that point in time, the people up there were the kind you wanted to invite into your home for dinner,” Gritz said.
But along with the mild-mannered patriots came those whom Gritz calls the “knots.”
“When you’re fishing and everything is running smooth, when you make a great cast, sure as hell when you reel in your line there’s a knot. These guys were a constant irritant,” said Gritz, who no longer lives in Almost Heaven. “There were about six individuals who were looking for Armageddon, and if it didn’t come, they were going to cause it.”
Some residents filed documents with the Idaho County Courthouse, renouncing their U.S. citizenship and claiming to be “sovereigns” of the “Idaho State Republic.”
Others started a militia group called the Idaho Mountain Boys. The group was later accused of plotting to kill U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge, and member and former Almost Home resident Larry Raugust eventually pleaded guilty to 15 counts of making bombs. He was accused of planting land mines around the foreclosed property of a friend near Almost Heaven. Two other militia members were convicted of a 1999 plot to blow up a propane tank farm near Sacramento, Calif.
Meanwhile, all the press piqued the interest of other extremists who settled around Idaho County, not just at Almost Heaven, Nims said.
“We’ve always had a number of ultraconservatives, and it’s never been threatening. It’s a good thing, a balance. But when you get hundreds of them, well, I was heartened to see the county wake up,” Nims said.
Local residents became more active against the patriot group, joining a loosely organized discussion group started by Nims – the Clearwater Valley Citizens for Human Rights. Area businesses posted signs stating “No Guns” after some Almost Heaven residents began toting six-shooters on their hips. Letters were written to local lawmakers and newspapers, and over time law enforcement agencies became more successful in arresting any lawbreakers in the patriot group.
“A few of us were kind of upset because they upset the apple cart, so to speak,” Simler said. “They were kind of belligerent, against government, but other than that just like anybody else. But now it seems that not much has changed because of them. More traffic, but that’s about it.”
But for the past few years, the patriot community has been quiet. Longtime residents have turned their attention to another new antigovernment group, made up of locals and newcomers, called the Watchmen on the Wall.
Jack McLamb, a conspiracy theorist and former police officer from Phoenix who helped start the Doves of the Valley communities, estimates there are now about 350 people living in all the covenant developments in the area.
“We’ve got a few who have left, but every year we might get a few more people, sometimes six or eight families, sometimes less,” said McLamb, 60. “It’s all word of mouth.”
Some of those newcomers may be pro-militia, as McLamb himself is, he said. But their brand of patriotism is not racist or violent, he said.
“You mention the word militia and they think you’re all Nazis walking around saluting and hating blacks and attempting to overthrow the government,” he said. “But I studied militias when they began to get popular across the United States and they were mostly just constitutionalists who wanted to do what we’re doing here: Stop the government from taking over the local government. We’re ready to be called into duty if the governor or sheriff needs help.”
McLamb claimed the covenant communities had virtually no impact on the local residents.
“I wish we’d had more effect in the county than what we’ve had. We don’t think we had much at all and wish we had more,” he said. “We’ve only got one vote each, and 300 votes isn’t going to change much.”
Nims, however, said aftereffects of the Almost Heaven influx are still rippling through the region, and not all are bad.
“People are a lot more involved politically now. For the first time in a long time, Idaho County’s got an active Democratic Party, and the mainstream conservative elements have become more active too,” Nims said. “In that sense, it’s a blessing in disguise.”
And the future of Almost Heaven? Gritz, who now hosts a radio talk show from his Nevada home, won’t rule out returning to the development.
“If push ever came to shove, I’d take my wife and my dog and go back,” Gritz said. “I still think it’s the safest place on Earth.”
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