This Old Crater

A volcanic cinder cone near Flagstaff will soon become one of the world's most significant pieces of environmental art

Mary Malmgren, a Chambers daughter, joined her father for one of Turrell's early pitches and remembers her father asking afterward, "'What in the world is he going to do? What does he really want to do up there?' Jim showed us all these pictures he'd taken of a street corner where he lived in Los Angeles. It had a stoplight. And the pictures were of the light shining in his room. It was certainly something else. It was a whole new way of looking at art."

Ed McPherson, husband of another Chambers daughter, Helen, suspected the idea was a ruse. "I think I was convinced that he was actually involved with some secret deal going on with our government. I thought he must be looking for some site to do special tests for bombs or some such thing. It just didn't make sense to me to spend all that money just to figure out light."

Rita Gannon, the third sister, who along with her husband, Ed, still runs the Chambers ranch, adjacent to the crater, thought it was a nutty idea, and still does.

But she couldn't sway the others. "My sister Helen, who's rather ethereal, was the one who said that Turrell had flown all over the country and picked this crater out of all of them, so let's sell it to him."

At one point, perhaps to close the deal, Turrell flew Helen over the crater in his small plane. "He got me up there and he pops the door off," she says, "then he shuts off the motor."

The wind was howling through the tiny cabin. They were already flying low over the volcanoes surrounding Roden. Now they were just gliding. No place to land. "So I asked him, can you start it again? His answer: 'Usually.'"

Turrell found another friend in the Dia Art Foundation. Formed in 1974 to advance art projects like Turrell's that probably couldn't find support any other way, the New York foundation in 1975 agreed to acquire the crater. Dia leased it at first, then bought it in 1977 for about $65,000. The price worked out to the then-exorbitant rate of $100 an acre. At the time, land in the area wasn't selling for much more than $75 an acre; today's going rate is $300 an acre.

Dia (not an acronym, it means "through" in Greek) also began paying Turrell a monthly stipend to build his project. In 1982, Turrell established Skystone Foundation, a private nonprofit organization to raise funds and receive project gifts.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dia pumped more than $1 million into Roden Crater--then called the "Sun and Moon" project.

Then, in the early 1980s, the financial bottom fell out, when the world oil glut hammered oil stocks--a primary source of Dia's largess.

"The check didn't arrive one month--I think it was 1982 or 1983," says Turrell. So he called them up. No answer. He waited a week and called again. This time, there was no phone.

Dia's collapse put Turrell in a terrible bind. He was working out of a studio/office provided by the Museum of Northern Arizona. He was hundreds of thousands of dollars into the project, and, based on Dia's projected financial commitment, he had taken out substantial bank loans for construction equipment and other materials.

The investment had barely scratched the surface. In fact, Turrell's initial shaping of the rim hadn't worked the way he envisioned, so he'd had to re-sculpt it. He says Dia's exit forced him to sell much of his project equipment at a substantial loss.

The foundation's collapse also left ownership of the crater itself in a limbo that would take several years to sort out. Dia eventually donated the crater and its land to Skystone Foundation, so Turrell could continue the project.

But that ownership came with a price that Turrell hadn't anticipated. This was because of a simple fact of rangeland real estate: If you don't run cattle on your land, another rancher probably will.

The crater occupied rangeland that was checkerboarded with alternating square miles of state and private property. Unbeknownst to Turrell, the state squares came with grazing leases that could be used in conjunction with the adjacent private land. Neither Turrell nor Skystone held those leases. Another rancher did.

Turrell feared poor herd management would trash his vision for the crater and its surrounding viewshed. He didn't want the adjacent land to look appreciably different from the crater. Yet cattle were being allowed to congregate for extended periods around sources of water nearby. And the herds weren't being rotated among different pastures. The resulting overgrazing was deteriorating Roden's surroundings.

Turrell also saw his crater views being threatened by the spread of 40-acre homesteads--with trailer homes, junked vehicles, and piles of tires and trash.

To protect the project, he'd have to buy land, compete for grazing leases and ranch the property. From the mid-1980s through the 1990s, he built a ranch that stretches more than 150 square miles southwest from the crater. He piled up debt along the way.

Doug Ruppel, who managed Turrell's Walking Cane Ranch from 1992 until last year, says an old adage in ranching is that you can use land to pay for cattle or use cattle to pay for land. But you can't do both.

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