Tribes Say CalTrans Illegally Destroying Historical Sites for Bypass

 Tribes Say CalTrans Illegally Destroying Historical Sites for Bypass

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photo: Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians tribal representatives Priscilla Hunter (left) and Eddie Knight (right) with tribal Chairman Mike Hunter visit the Willits Bypass construction site on the Northern California coast, where they and Sherwood Valley Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians officials say Caltrans officials are breaking the law and damaging important archaeological sites. credit: Marc Dadigan.


In the fall of 2012, Mike Fitzgerral was driving outside of Willits in Northern California, on Highway 101, the famous coastal roadway that wends through the awe-inspiring Redwood Forest, and he noticed construction workers had started erecting orange mesh fencing and cutting down oak trees.

Fitzgerral, Chairman of the Sherwood Valley Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, knew the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) had been investigating constructing a 5.9-mile bypass around Willits that would likely cut through the heart of Little Lake Valley, the lush wetlands and ancestral home of many Pomo tribal members in the area.

He recalled some short meetings about the project in the early 2000s but no official consultation had ever occurred.

“When I called the guy in charge of the project, they told me it was going ahead,” Fitzgerral said. “One 15-minute meeting, and they called that consultation. Then they started pushing dirt, and they started finding things they said wouldn’t be there.”

Since the $200 million construction began, Sherwood Valley and other Pomo tribal officials say they have witnessed and documented CalTrans blatantly violating National Historic Preservation Act regulations meant to protect tribal heritage and resources. They say CalTrans has failed to consult, failed to provide completely transparent information about their archaeological surveys, ignored tribal input and ethnography about the location of historical sites and recklessly disrupted areas where they should have known there were important Pomo village areas.

“We’re not trying to stop the project. All we’re asking is that they follow the laws that give us a chance to protect our history,” said Eddie Knight, tribal representative of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians. “But they just want to finish the project.”

Tension between CalTrans and tribal officials crescendoed in September 2013, when they learned construction workers had previously installed 85-foot wick drain pipes underground through a site that was believed to contain a hearth, fossilized seeds and other cultural items of great interest to the tribe. As concern grew, representatives from the Coyote Valley and Round Valley, which also have members descended from Little Lake Valley, joined Sherwood Valley in monitoring and consulting on the project.

CalTrans had been aware of the site through ethnographic information, but because officials never created a map and only relied on written descriptions, they impaled the site with the wick drains anyway, which, in a letter to Fitzgerral, State Historic Preservation Officer Carol Roland-Nawi said severely damaged the site and indicated CalTrans had been non-compliant with the law.

“We’re only a couple generations from removal, and they’re destroying our time capsules that could give us snapshots of what happened and what wasn’t preserved through oral history,” said Hillary Renick, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for Sherwood Valley.

CalTrans Public Information Officer Phil Frisbie said staff was too busy working on the wetlands mitigation part of the project to map the Pomo sites earlier, but the site most likely would not have been eligible for historic preservation. The tribes vigorously disagree with many of CalTrans conclusions about the historic value of sites, including the hearth, which Renick says probably was actually a cremation site and may provide insight into what happened to the Pomo people during an 1830s smallpox epidemic.

“There is so much information there about how we lived and what happened to us. The project goes right through villages that are on basic California Indian maps and described by well known anthropologists,” Renick said. “Since I became the THPO in 2004, this is the most frustrating Section 106 case I’ve seen.”

Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act applies to the bypass because the Federal Highway Administration is partially funding the project, and recent amendments of Section 106 require CalTrans to consult with local federally recognized tribes and develop plans to avoid damaging cultural resources as much as possible.

However, Pomo officials say the Willits Bypass project is emblematic of the inherent biases and conflicts of interest that affect the enforcement and application of the law. And while the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the federal overseer of Section 106 projects, has written stern letters rebuking some of CalTrans’ claims and actions, tribal officials say the system is toothless.

“The system has become utterly corrupt, so agencies manipulated the system and go through the motions,” said Thomas King, an anthropologist, author and cultural resources consultant who previously worked for the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. “You’ve got clearly self-interested development firms and self-interested consultants leaning on the agencies, and the tribes get shafted. It becomes an archaeological endeavor and the cultural interests of the tribes get trampled.”

In the case of the Willits Bypass, the process, according to CalTrans officials, began in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the agency sent letters to Sherwood Valley and Coyote Valley.

Frisbie said the agency had been consulting with Sherwood Valley officials since well before the draft Environmental Impact and Feasibility studies were released in 2002.

“We have had many, many publicized meetings in the late 90s and early 2000s, and the current chair of Sherwood Valley was on the committee that helped CalTrans identify cultural sites in the Little Lake Valley,” he said. “Coyote Valley and Round Valley were notified, but they never expressed interest until recently.”

Lee Claus, an archaeologist hired as a consultant for Sherwood Valley, said the records indicate there were some general conversations about alternative routes for the project, but no official consultation ever took place.

Furthermore, Claus said CalTrans archaeologists only did a “surface survey” on the area directly impacted by the road construction, leading them to conclude in the final 2006 Environmental Impact Statement that no cultural sites would by damaged by the construction. That report didn’t include a survey of more than 2,000 acres of land that CalTrans later purchased to create and restore wetland areas as mitigation for the ecosystems the four-lane bypass would disrupt, Claus said.

CalTrans then began conducting additional surveys on the mitigation acreage and found 7 additional cultural sites, but the Pomo tribes were never informed of the ongoing surveys until after construction started, Claus said.

“Sherwood made the point of going on record that there was ethnographic data that showed these were Pomo villages and living places in the area. They told CalTrans you are going to find archaeological sites, but that was noted and summarily forgotten (by CalTrans),” Claus said. “The archaeology CalTrans is doing now should have been done a decade ago.”

Tribal officials also say CalTrans is not properly informing and consulting with them about new sites that are disrupted or found during construction. Frisbie said CalTrans contractors and archaeologists are working to improve the communication process.

After two construction seasons, nearly 30 cultural sites not documented in the first EIS have been found, Claus said. Renick added that the dozens upon dozens of “isolates,” smatterings of artifacts deemed not large enough to be considered a “site” might also be more significant than CalTrans is saying.

“There have been some areas and items uncovered, and now whenever there is soil being disturbed we make sure the cultural monitors from all three tribes are notified so they can spot something of cultural significance,” Frisbie said.

He added that the build up to the Willits bypass was long and complicated, especially because there were delays in funding due to the downturn in the economy. “We understand that Sherwood Valley, due to these delays, felt like they weren’t able to stay in the loop like they should have,” he said. “We’re working with the tribes on improving communication for any new discoveries.”

For the near future, the tribal monitors will continue to do their best to stop construction when a new site is uncovered, they said, but there is only enough funding for a handful of them to cover an entire six miles. The tribes are also trying to work on a final agreement with CalTrans on the handling of cultural resources, but Claus said the meetings have been scheduled several weeks apart and the process is slow.

And as each month goes by without a strong framework for protecting the past, important remnants of Pomo history are lost, Renick said.

“During this project, we’ve found every single form of obsidian there is in California. There was trading with tribes from all over, there were dances, there was socializing and important relationships being formed,” Renick said. “History is never static.”