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Tribes bill has Inland stamp

INPUT: Lawmakers passed the sacred sites measure, but Gov. Davis is being pressed to veto it.


If California tribes get a greater say over development near their sacred sites, they will have Inland lawmakers and tribes to thank.

A bill that would give tribes a chance to weigh in on proposed development is awaiting Gov. Davis' signature after having passed by wide margins in both the Senate and Assembly last month.

Assemblyman Bill Leonard, R-San Bernardino, shepherded the measure through the Assembly, using the story of a 2,000-year-old oak tree considered sacred by the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians near Temecula to make his case.

Pechangas' ancient oak

Leonard placed copies of a photograph of the tree on the computers of every member of the Assembly. The tribe has been fighting a proposal by San Diego Gas & Electric to run a power line through southwestern Riverside County. The power line would pass near the ancient oak, which is not on the tribe's federally protected reservation but on a ranch owned by the tribe.

Davis has refused to say whether he'll sign the bill into law, but builders in Inland Southern California and elsewhere are attacking the measure as unconstitutional and potentially crippling for developers, who would get embroiled in lawsuits. They believe the legislation singles out tribes for preferential treatment and would be ripe for abuse by tribes seeking to limit development anywhere in the state, regardless of a site's religious significance.

The legislation is the most recent demonstration of the California tribes' burgeoning political influence. Tribes once had a difficult time getting much attention in Sacramento, but this bill passed on votes of 53-12 in the Assembly and 22-7 in the Senate.

Inland Southern California gaming tribes -- among the most prosperous in the state -- have donated generously to the campaigns of Davis and many of the bill's supporters. Leonard has received $50,750 in cash contributions from tribes and a tribal political action committee for his November race for a Board of Equalization seat.

California tribal casinos pulled in an estimated $3.3 billion in 2001, but exact figures and regional estimates are unavailable because tribes don't release that information.

Inland impact unclear

"We have no idea where this is going to lead us in the field. This could hold up just virtually any private- or public-initiated development project in the state," said Borre Winckel, a land developer in southwestern Riverside County and the executive director of the county's chapter of the Building Industry Association.

"In Riverside County, it particularly could be very impactful given that much of our properties in the Temecula area are in former Indian territory."

How it would work

The legislation, S.B. 1828 by state Sen. John Burton, D-S.F., would require government agencies to notify affected tribes whenever a project is proposed for a site within 20 miles of their individual reservations. The agency also would have to consult with the tribe about reducing the effects of development on the land.

A tribe could lodge an objection to the project. The local agency would have final approval over the project, according to the bill, but could overrule a tribe's objection only if there is "overriding environmental, public health or safety reason" that the project should proceed.

Clearing such a hurdle would be virtually impossible, critics say, giving tribes nearly complete authority over development.

The legislation also would protect sites anywhere in the state, on private or public land, deemed sacred by virtue of their historical, cultural or religious significance. The site that inspired the legislation is an area known as Indian Pass in Imperial County, where members of the Quechan Nation say they have worshipped for years. The tribe has been trying to stop Glamis Imperial Corp. efforts to dig for gold on federal land near its reservation.

'A formal voice for tribes'

"It 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," Pechanga Chairman Mark Macarro said.

The Native American Heritage Commission maintains a list of about 300 sacred religious sites, averaging a quarter-acre each, although Leonard said there may be sites not yet discovered. The cataloged sites are kept secret to protect them from vandals.

"Given the lack of archaeological work in California and the way that the tribal populations were so massacred in the 19th century, it is possible that some of the sites were lost and then the oral history was lost and would take somebody going in and turning a shovel" to learn a site was sacred, Leonard said.

The Assembly Appropriations Committee predicted the bill could cost local and state agencies millions of dollars annually, presumably in legal and regulatory costs. The bill is expected to cost the state's Native American Heritage Commission about $250,000 in its first fiscal year.

Critics urge a veto

An anti-Indian gambling group is urging opponents to the bill to flood the governor with requests to veto the measure, and editorial writers up and down the state have denounced the bill as one that could harm the state's economy and give tribes too much power. Opponents say the existing environmental review processes are sufficient to protect tribal sites.

"This would provide an unwarranted expansion of the involvement of the tribes in local government planning and private properties," said Neil Derry, a San Bernardino councilman whose district borders the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians' reservation.

"I have no doubt that eventually a law like this will be utilized in an extreme way that it was never intended to be used," he said. "All I have to do if I'm a tribe if this passes is say there was some ceremony there one time, and -- boom -- your project is dead."

Despite their outcry, opponents fear the governor will sign the bill. Leonard said Davis, who has supporters on both sides of this issue, should make the measure law in the interest of protecting tribal religious freedoms and property rights.

"I think this one of those political decisions Gov. Davis doesn't like to make," Leonard said. "I think our First Amendment protections of religious freedom trump the other arguments."

Reach Michelle DeArmond at (909) 368-9441 or [email protected]


OP-ED: Two lines longer Clash of cultures, religions (CALIFORNIA) -- The cultural heritage and sacred sites of Native American tribes in California is an important part of our history and should be preserved for future generations to cherish. But current legislation being considered by Gov. Gray Davis to expand these rights simply goes too far, and puts the future quality of life in San Diego County at risk.



Laws favoring land development over the protection of religious and ceremonial sites have limited the ability of Indian people to protect their dignity and cultural heritage. These irreplaceable places are essential to cultural traditions, and once they are gone, they are gone forever.

The Legislature has passed balanced and reasonable legislation, SB 1828, giving Native American sacred sites protection similar to that afforded environmental resources. The bill includes Native American sacred sites in the California Environmental Quality Act, and it restricts new mines on or near sacred sites in the California desert.

Governor Gray Davis is deciding now whether to sign SB 1828. He is hearing from many big business interests in opposition to the bill. At the same time, the state's newspapers are considering whether to support or oppose the bill in their editorial pages.

Letters to the editor are needed now.
Your letter should be copied to
Governor Gray Davis,
Attn. Linda Adams,
State Capitol,
Sacramento, CA 95814.
Phone: 916-445-2841
Fax: 916-445-4633
[email protected]

Please write now.

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