Sacred sites bill passes California Legislature


SACRAMENTO, Calif. ? A bill passed by the California legislature on Sept. 1 to protect American Indian sacred sites within 20 miles of federally recognized Indian lands has sparked a large controversy as it awaits Gov. Gray Davis' signature or veto.

The proposed legislation, known as Senate Bill (SB) 1828, would amend the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQUA) to give the existing California Native American Heritage Commission veto rights over any development on lands tribes consider sacred within 20 miles of tribal lands.

SB 1828 pits tribes and political office holders from both sides of the aisle against a group of assorted big business groups and their political allies, again from both sides of the aisles.

The big business groups argue that if passed, the bill could cost the state millions of dollars in lawsuits and cripple development and thus the already weakened economy throughout the state.

The tribes argue that the proposed legislation merely corrects two centuries of imbalance where tribes have stood by helplessly while developers have created missions, strip malls and fast food joints on land considered spiritually significant to California tribes.

The curious thing about the political power play is the creation of unlikely bedfellows in support of the bill. The bill's author, Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, represents one of the most liberal cities in the nation and has a voting record consistent with his constituents views.

However, Senators Jim Battin, R-La Quinta, and Bill Leonard, R-San Bernardino, both of whom represent some of the most conservatives areas in the country, are finding themselves in the unlikely position of lending support to Burton on this bill.

Batttin and Leonard, normally staunch property rights advocates, also have several of the richer Southern California gaming tribes in their districts; both men have received substantial campaign contributions from tribes with large scale gaming operations.

Leonard, who is termed out of office, is currently seeking a seat on the statewide Board of Equalization. According to the California Secretary of State1s office, Leonard has received approximately one quarter of his nearly $150,000 in campaign contributions from tribal interests.

However, both men have also received similar contributions from developers. Asked if this made his decision on the matter tough, Leonard insists that his decisions are not governed by campaign contributions.

Leonard frames the debate over the legislation as a religious and not economic issue; his support stems from what he perceives as an attack on religious freedom.

Refuting opponents charges that the legislation would be economically damaging, Leonard points out that only 300 such sites are currently identified by the Native American Heritage Commission; at an average of a quarter acre apiece, only some 75 total acres would be affected statewide.

Furthermore, Leonard feels the bill could actually reduce the amount of red tape for developers as tribes must be consulted when the development is in its planning stages, so developers could adjust plans after tribal input and before ground is broken.

"What people don't realize is that a development can already be stopped over lawsuits, and this reduces the chances for lawsuits since there would be tribal input from the beginning," says Leonard.

A recent Sacramento Bee editorial claims that since some tribes find entire mountain ranges to be sacred, a loophole could curtail development over a wide area.

Leonard thinks this is "unfounded" since the bill only covers specific areas of actual worship. He also refutes charges that the legislation could lead to a plethora of frivolous claims by adding that tribes would have to undergo an expensive process of hiring archeologists and historians to back their claims.

Calls to the California League of Cities and state Sen. Steve Peace, D-El Cajon, leading opponents of SB 1828, were not returned by press time.

Beyond the political power play, however, lie the tribes themselves. Two of the most high profile players in the battle are the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians and the Quechan Tribe who reside in southeastern California.

The Pechangas have been fighting with San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) over power lines that will come within a few hundred feet of the Great Oak, a majestic oak tree that is arguably the oldest in the state.

The Great Oak, considered spiritually significant to the tribe, sits on land recently purchased to connect two formerly non-contiguous parcels of tribal land. Since the land has yet to be taken into trust, the tribe has had little recourse against SDG&E.

The Pechangas have also fought several years of losing battles against the city of Temecula, which is slowly filling up the Temecula Valley and inching closer to Pechanga almost daily.

The tribe has fought several losing battles against the city and developers, including failed attempts to save a 6,000-year-old village site and a small grove of cottonwood trees along Temecula Creek.

Tribal chairman Mark Macarro, says that the point of the bill is not to stall all development, but to make the process of development more "responsible" and "deliberate" particularly when it comes to dealing with tribes.

"It (SB 1828) interjects into the environmental process a formal voice for tribes where tribes are currently only a footnote, and as such, not in a position to advocate protection of sites sacred to their people" says Macarro.

Quechan has recently been in the news for its fight against a proposed gold mining development by Reno, Nevada-based Glamis Gold, in the Indian Pass area, which lies outside of their reservation.

Tribal attorney Courtney Coyle points out that the sacred site protection is only one of two parts of SB 1828. The other requirement would be for mining companies to backfill projects that are considered complete.

Coyle said that this portion of the bill alone would kill the Glamis project as it would add $80 million to $100 million to costs for the Indian Pass project; the tribe wouldn't even have to invoke the newfound power in the first part of the bill.

"It's only the mining companies that are opposing this portion of the bill, other than that, the second portion of the bill is non-controversial."

Hillary McLean, spokeswoman for Gov. Davis, said he is unsure whether he will sign the bill or not. The governor has 30 days in which to do so.