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Pechanga oppose power project at Great Oak Ranch

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TEMECULA, Calif. - The Pechanga band of Luiseno Indians, like many other California tribes, feels a special relationship with the native oaks of the Golden State. An oak even graces their tribal seal.

The oldest living coast oak was part of the attraction for the band when it bought the 800-acre Great Oak Ranch last May.

Now the Pechangas fear that a proposal by San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) may put the oak and other cultural, historical and natural features of the Great Oak Ranch in jeopardy.

SDG&E has seized upon the California power crisis to pull an old plan off the shelf. The plan known as the Valley Rainbow Interconnect seeks to build a 31-mile 500,000-volt transmission line that would connect SDG&E with Southern California Edison, the power company that services Los Angeles and surrounding areas.

"It's become a major issue, this SDG&E thing. It's an obstacle we're faced with because of the so-called energy supply crisis," says Pechanga Communications Director Butch Murphy.

Under the proposed plan, the $271 million Valley Rainbow Interconnect would stretch its high voltage power lines directly through the Great Oak Ranch. Pechangas claim that SDG&E is attempting to exercise eminent domain to seize the property.

Further complicating the situation is that the land is in fee status and while in that state, the power company can exercise eminent domain. The Pechanga have been in negotiations with members of Congress to attach a rider to an appropriations bill that would turn the fee land to trust.

If the land were held in trust, SDG&E would have to get expressed permission from the tribe to build the power lines. Pechanga officials said they would not give permission for such a project.

John Gomez, who works for the Pechanga Cultural Resource Center says the land is particularly important to the tribe in that it connects non-contiguous portions of the reservation. He says several important Luiseno village and cultural sites have been identified on the property.

Furthermore, Gomez says that the Great Oak itself could be in potential danger from the Valley Rainbow Interconnect Project.

Gomez feels it is particularly important that the tribe get the land into trust as quickly as possible. He says that they have widespread support from California political officials.

Along with a whole host of politicians on every level, the two U.S. senators from California, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer issued statements expressing their support for trust status of the Great Oak Ranch.

Murphy says many of the politicians questioned the need for such a project and some such as Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., have said that it has not yet been determined if there is a need for the Rainbow Valley Interconnect project.

SDG&E claims the project is necessary to prevent blackouts in San Diego and surrounding areas. Opponents of power deregulation counter that faulty, deregulated distribution and not supply is to blame for the crisis.

President Bush, however, believes supply is the problem and part of his energy plan allows regulators to exercise eminent domain over private lands, which is what Great Oak Ranch would be considered while in fee status.

Pechanga officials claim SDG&E sent a letter to the BIA opposing the fee to trust application of the Great Oak Ranch.

Art Larson, a spokesman for Sempra, parent company of SDG&E said the Pechanga has misinterpreted the letter, which he claims was only written as a concern over "procedural issues." He said that SDG&E was not properly notified about the land purchase and added the power company is negotiating with Pechanga in good faith.

"The company was not given notice of the land transfer," Larson said. Furthermore he said there are two possible plans for the Rainbow Valley Interconnect, a proposed and a preferred plan. The proposed plan would directly impact the Great Oak Ranch, whereas the preferred one would skirt other, unpopulated areas of Pechanga property.

While the Pechanga are trying to get the Great Oak Ranch turned from fee to trust as quickly as possible, several California legislators are asking the federal government to pass legislation that would require utilities to use public rather than private lands whenever possible.

Gary Dubois, another worker at the Pechanga Cultural Resources Center, said the tribe is in the process of evaluating the flora and fauna on the property for rare and endangered species. He and Gomez said it is a little early to say for sure, but early indications show that there are endangered species located on the Great Oak Ranch.

In addition to the natural features, Gomez and Dubois said that both oral tradition and recent custom positively identify several cultural sites on the property. They point out that the Great Oak Ranch was where author Erle Stanley Garner wrote the majority of his popular "Perry Mason" novels.

"These are the reasons that this land is not only important to us (Pechanga) and our cultural heritage, but also important to the community at large," Gomez said.

The men said that after the inventory of the flora and fauna has been taken, the next step will be to institute a native plant restoration and add that the band has started a small native plant nursery to help in this process.

Also important to the tribe is the preservation of the existing oaks on the property, including the 2,000 year old, 96-foot Great Oak.

"I've seen several people, non-Indians especially, actually start crying when they are under the canopy of that great tree because of the spiritual nature of the place. I mean it's powerful," Dubois said.