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Gov. Davis signs legislation to protect Quechan sacred site

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - In a signing ceremony staged at his capitol office, California Gov. Gray Davis signed Senate Bill 22 into law, which is aimed to protect a Quechan tribal sacred area from a proposed nearby open pit gold mine.

"We're sending a message that sacred sites are more important than gold," said Gov. Davis in a short speech that preceded the actual signing of the bill.

The signing ceremony included tribal officials as well as state legislators who had worked on the bill, including its author Sen. Byron Sher, D-Palo Alto.

The bill is the result of several months' effort by the Davis administration to protect the Quechan site after he had vetoed a more broadly based sacred sites protection bill last year. After vetoing that bill Gov. Davis singled out the Quechan tribe and said he would specifically work to protect that site.

The language of the bill essentially deals directly with open pit mining operations near sacred sites and requires that all such projects be back filled and restored to "pre-mining conditions." The protected area effects an 880-foot deep, one-mile wide open pit, cyanide leaching gold mining operation originally proposed by Reno, Nevada-based Glamis Gold, Ltd in 1994. The proposed project sits about a mile from the Quechan sacred site, which is located in the Indian Pass area of Imperial County.

Essentially this restores a federal decision on mining that was signed by former President Clinton in the closing hours of his administration and was later reversed by the Bush Administration's Department of Interior. It is unclear, however, how the new state law will fare against the federal reversal.

In fact when Davis was questioned during the ceremony whether this was a warning shot to the Bush Administration, Davis recalled the Clinton order and called the current bill a restoration to the former mining regulation.

"California has done what the (federal) Department of Interior won't do, he (Davis) protected our sacred site," said Quechan tribal President Mike Jackson. Jackson had at one point in the preceding months asked Davis if he would stand in front of the bulldozers at the proposed gold mine; an anecdote that Davis wryly recalled during the ceremony.

Though the state had only recently agreed to take up the tribe's cause, Quechan has been fighting the proposal for the past seven years and in the past two has launched a major public relations blitz for their cause. Just last year the tribe's efforts paid off. Shortly before the first, more comprehensive bill was vetoed last year, the Quechan managed to get the site registered as one of the 50 Most Endangered Historic Sites by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Though the Quechan site is now protected some tough issues regarding sacred site protection remain. Though last year's more comprehensive bill only covered about 75 total acres in California, it was opposed by a variety of business interests and was notable for making some strange political bedfellows that included the decidedly unusual joining of liberal Democrats and social conservatives opposing pro-business conservatives.

Though Davis referred to the Quechan site protection as a triumph over "corporate interests" the Quechan site specifically had fewer opponents because of the relative small scope of this specific project. Coupling this fact is that Glamis Gold, who had proposed the project, is not based in California making the economic impact fairly negligible.

Tougher questions abound in other areas considered sacred to other California tribes. For example last year somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 salmon died on the Klamath River, considered sacred to, among others, the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes. Later studies concluded that business interests ranging from logging to farming to urban public utilities were among the culprits that contributed to higher water temperatures and thus lower oxygen levels that resulted in the massive die-off.

When questioned by Indian Country Today as to whether he would be willing to take on the larger corporate interests to protect sacred sites such as the salmon on the Klamath River, the governor responded that he would. When asked what he is specifically doing in this regard, Gov. Davis replied that he was working with tribal representatives from across the state to craft new, more comprehensive sacred site protection and expected to have results in the coming months.