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Feds Don’t Approve Caltrans Treatment of Cultural Sites During Willits Bypass Construction

In what tribal representatives say is a promising sign, ACHP officials won't sign Caltran's plan to manage Pomo sites discovered during construction.

In what tribal representatives say is a promising sign for their lawsuit, officials from the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation announced in a March 24 letter they have declined to sign a controversial plan by the California Department of Transportation to manage Pomo cultural sites and resources discovered during construction of the Willits Bypass project in Northern California.

Priscilla Hunter, representative for the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians, said it would have been a big mountain to climb for their litigation if ACHP had signed the programmatic agreement, or PA, but she wondered why it took federal officials so long to weigh in.

“They’re not copping to doing anything wrong. They’re saying they’re not going to sign this agreement that (Caltrans) wrote while they were destroying our sites the whole time,” she said. “They were supposed to have this in place before construction.”

In their lawsuit, filed in October 2015, the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians and the Round Valley Indian Tribes accuse Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration of violating federal environmental and historic preservation laws. They also allege that construction began on the roadway in 2013 without any government-to-government consultation and with a recklessly superficial survey for cultural sites that could be effected. The bypass runs straight through the lush Little Lake Valley, which is well known among the Pomo as the home to many village sites, gathering areas and salmon streams.

More than 30 culturally significant sites have been discovered since construction began, and many have been damaged because of poor or, in some cases, blatantly negligent treatment, the tribes allege. In November 2013, the ACHP officials determined Caltrans had made significant errors in its treatment of cultural sites and instructed Caltrans to begin consultations with Coyote Valley, Round Valley, and the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians to develop the PA. Yet the tribes were outraged when Caltrans allegedly issued a “take it or leave it” PA in October 2015 that was stripped of many of the previously agreed upon stipulations.

“They shifted the PA to have such a high threshold for artifacts and lithic scatters, it would have been impossible for them to ‘find’ a village site,” said aid Pauline Girvin, an Indian law attorney and legal advisor for Coyote Valley. “And instead of doing true archaeological surveys when they find a site, they would just have to do what we call ‘grab and bag’ archaeology while the bulldozers keep running through.”

Attorneys and tribal officials say a lawsuit is vitally important because Caltrans may attempt to use this PA as its standard for all future projects, which could have devastating effects on the history, culture and religious sites of tribes across the state.

Caltrans officials say they can’t comment on pending litigation, but they previously have denied any cultural sites have been damaged during construction.

Charlene Dwin Vaughn, Assistant Director of the Office of Federal Agency Programs at ACHP, said she believes Caltrans has abided by the law throughout the development and construction of the Willits Bypass. She said ACHP officials have been actively involved in consultations from the outset, and that their March 24 letter is not a “rejection” of the PA but their recommendation for “the best way to move forward.”

“The project, [is] almost 90 percent complete, and we believe using the Caltrans statewide PA makes the most sense in terms of Caltrans being able to finish the project,” she said.

Girvin stated the statewide PA still fails to provide a minimum standard for what constitutes a culturally significant site. While the roadway is nearly finished, there are still cultural sites located within 2,000 acres Caltrans bought as mitigation for wetlands destroyed by construction.

“We’re still fighting for access to gathering and usage of the mitigation parcels, and they only have a few sentences in their plan about cultural protection,” she said. “The (ACHP) didn’t sign the PA, but they didn’t do anything proactive to protect our sites.”