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A 'Heavenly' Science Center

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Oregon educators appear to have found a heavenly site in the state's mountainous interior to build a science center that would offer children unparalleled access to natural resources.

The only problem is that the property was once a "heaven on earth'' home for a commune of religious followers of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

The Bhagwan has long since fled the country to avoid arrest on various charges, and later died in India, leaving a trail of unhappy and wary former neighbors in his wake.

Members of the commune, which dispersed following its leader's departure, were viewed as a nuisance by local residents, who charged, among other things, that they tried to rig local elections.

Nevertheless, officials of the state education department, the Oregon Museum of Science, and the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators met with Wasco County officials this month to discuss plans to rezone the 25-acre tract to accommodate the project.

The owner of the land, Dennis Washington, a Montana industrialist, is spending millions of dollars to renovate the Big Muddy Ranch--also officially known as "Rancho Rajneesh''--and has offered to lease it to the state for $1 a year for the next 25 years.

Norma S. Paulus, the state superintendent of public instruction, said last week that the science center would be privately funded by foundations and other independent backers. The museum would then manage the facility, which would serve public-school students.

While they hope to conclude negotiations soon and to hold some classes on the property next month, state officials noted that they will have to overcome a great deal of caution in the surrounding communities that stems from unsavory publicity generated by the Bhagwan's adherents.

A spokesman noted, for example, that baseless rumors already are circulating that participants in the negotiations are affiliated with the religious sect.--P.W.

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