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INDIANS, LOCALS APPLAUD FILM ON ZION PARK AREA

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The experience is like being an eagle soaring over the canyons and seeing all the beauty of the sacred land through an eagle's eye, says Alex O. Shepherd, chairman of Utah's Paiute Tribe.

That's his reaction after viewing the newly released "Treasure of the Gods" film shown on a 60-foot screen in the new Zion Canyon Theater at the west entrance of Zion National Park."The eagle - like the canyons - are revered by us. This film conveys our reverence for the land and our awe over its beauty. I encourage all Native Americans to see it."

Normally, Shepherd's thumbs-up review of a new film would be saved for the movie page. But producer-director Kieth Merrill's work - and the theater it's shown in - are the targets of controversy.

Living in a town the size of Springdale - which a former mayor describes as having a population of 302 because of the babies born this month - it's hard not to have an opinion about the new Zion Canyon Theater, with its six-stories-high screen.

For years, the Zion Canyon Theater project has been the focus of lively debate among the locals. Some residents joined the National Parks and Conservation Association in a suit against developers but were unsuccessful. The conservation association warned that the canyon and Springdale would be spoiled by the project and the accompanying commercialism it would bring.

Those who failed to block the project in court continue to complain about the theater's film debut. They have accused the fictionalized film of promoting gold-digging in the canyon and misrepresenting the ancient Indian cultures that once inhabited Zion and the surrounding canyons.

But after viewing the film and touring the new facility, most Springdale residents are wondering what the fuss is all about. They applaud the sensitivity of developers for building a theater that blends aesthetically with the environment. Twenty-five feet of the screen are built into the ground to minimize obstruction of a view.

American Indian leaders are praising the film for its awe-inspiring beauty, its respect for their culture and its uplifting message.

Springdale residents received a special invitation to view the film, compliments of theater investors.

Lawrence Young, owner of the Zion Park Market and Hotel in Springdale, said most residents had been misinformed about the park. They had believed the theater was going to be built inside the canyon. But the theater is built on private land outside the canyon entrance. "Most people in town think it's a tremendous asset to our community. It's a beautiful building and the film is spectacular."

Former Mayor Robert E. Ralston, who completed his eight-year tenure in December, said, "You bet people are talking about this project. They're saying it's the most wonderful thing to happen to the town. The developers worked with the city planners to build a complex that enhances our town. They didn't spare anything to make it a beautiful site and the film is outstanding."

In the past, young people have had to leave the town to find employment. But the theater project now employs nearly 30 locals. Springdale residents were also employed to construct the theater.

And with the boost the project will give the town's tax base, Ralston hopes to "finally be able to build sidewalks" in town.

Paul Enciso, an Apache-Pueblo Indian and educator, served as the technical advisor to Merrill on the film. As a child growing up on a reservation in New Mexico, he was taught by his grandmother to respect the canyonlands.

"My grandmother would lay down and talk to her mother earth. I was taught never to take anything away from the earth, but to receive life from it. We prayed in the canyons.

"This respect for the land is what Kieth Merrill's film also conveys. It shows how the canyons have been revered by native peoples throughout history," said Enciso. "And passes this message on to those who visit the national parks."

Details in the film for scenes portraying American Indians were accurate. Merrill, an academy award winner who also directed the IMAX films "Grand Canyon - The Hidden Secrets" and "Legacy," insisted on authenticity, said Ensico. He was careful to respect sacred traditions. For instance, a scene in a kiva, a religious dwelling, suggests "that something sacred is happening, but the ceremony portrayed does not expose protected secrets," said Ensico.

According to Brent Heaton, theater manager and one of the investors, animosity by some environmentalists "seems to fade away" when they see the film and visit the theater. "I think there has been a push to stop us because it's a new business and people naturally feel protective of the canyon."

Heaton has received letters of apology from people who originally opposed the theater because they had been misinformed about the project.

The film is being re-edited to address some of the minor criticisms. The new version, for example, will make clear that the film includes Zion and surrounding canyons. "We will continue to work cooperatively with our critics to resolve any problems.

Don Falvey, superintendent of Zion National Park, has guarded the park against infractions by the theater project. He has had concerns about the effect of aerial photography on the environment. And, he's worried about the impact of traffic patterns and parking lot lights that shine in the park's campground across from the theater.

However, Falvey said his concerns have been "overblown" in the media.

"The whole thing got misreported. So far, there's not been a problem with traffic flow and the lights are low-intensity. Overall, the developers have been responsive to our concerns."

The Park Service has received a few questions from tourists about where they could go to dig for gold. The film depicts the 1680 revolt by the Pueblo who were being enslaved by the Spanish to mine gold.

But Falvey says it hasn't created a big stir and park service staff inform tourists gold digging isn't permitted.

"The controversy has been painful for the park service and developers. We want to work together to be good neighbors and to protect the beauty of the park," said Falvey.