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Lawmakers aim to protect sacred sites along California coast

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - A strange thing happened last year while a developer was working on a project at Orange County's Seal Beach, the bulldozers started to dig up bodies of American Indians.

Sara Wan, a member of the California Coastal Commission, was so outraged when the developer refused to acknowledge that he was working on a sacred site and his subsequent callous reactions to what had transpired that she vowed something had to be done.

Now, for the second time in two years a bill in the California legislature is attempting to amend an existing law to protect at least a portion of California Indian sacred sites.

Assembly Bill 974, authored by Assemblyman Joe Nation, D-San Rafael, is seeking to amend the California Coastal Act, which was enacted in 1976 to include protection of American Indian sacred sites in the coastal zone, as well as general archaeological or paleontological sites.

The coastal zone includes all 1,100 miles, north to south, of the California Coast and extends anywhere from a few hundred feet inland to as much as 15 miles in some areas with deep river inlets and estuaries, though it usually averages somewhere between one to two miles inland.

The bill has already passed the state Assembly on June 4 by a vote of 43 to 4 with 39 Democrats and four Republicans voting in favor of the bill. However, what is perhaps an interesting factor is the abstention of a large number of Republicans in the 80-member Assembly during the vote on this bill.

Linda Barr, an environmental consultant for Assemblyman Nation, said the current bill has nothing to do with last year's failed Sacred Sites Protection Act, which sought to amend the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQUA), which has a broader scope of authority.

The current bill was recently amended after critics accused it of being too vague, particularly regarding a line which listed "appropriate local Native Americans" along with the California Native American Heritage Commission, a state agency, among the list of groups representing Indian interests.

To remedy this problem the bill was recently amended before it hit the Assembly floor to specifically define "appropriate Native Americans" as federally recognized groups or tribe or band maintained by the Native American Heritage Commission.

The bill seeks to repeal the mitigation clause in the original law. The reason for this, said Coastal Commissioner Wan, is to stop abuses such as the one at Seal Beach, where Wan claims that the developer questioned the significance of the find and asked why the bodies could not be buried elsewhere.

"He thought that was a good example of mitigation," said Wan. "This bill stops that kind of inappropriate handling of a sacred site."

Though Wan is a member of the Coastal Commission, she is supporting this bill as a member of Vote the Coast, a non-profit environmental organization, and not as a Commission member. Vote the Coast is a sponsor of this bill.

Wan said that as a Commission member she has often found her hands tied behind her back when approached by Indian tribes looking for help. She had to tell the tribes that she was sympathetic but there was nothing that she could do.

"The law didn't allow for it."

Perhaps not surprisingly the bill is being opposed by a host of business interests and utilities. Some of the opponents are big state utilities such as Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), who want their own amendments written into the proposed law before they would drop their opposition.

Calls to PG&E's Governmental Affairs Office were not returned.

Other opponents include, among others, such energy companies as Calpine, who has teamed with Indian tribes on power projects, Sempra Energy, along with petroleum, mining and building groups.

The only public government that opposes the bill is the wealthy seaside community of Malibu where most of the town's development is on the coast.

The bill passed the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and will now be heard by that chamber's Appropriation Committee.