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The Gasquet-Orleans Road

Originally at, this article is now housed at IBSGWATCH with the permission of the author, Andy Cochrane.

    The Siskyou Mountains are a small range in northwest California and southwest Oregon. In the southern part, they contain parts of the Klamath and Smith River watersheds. These watersheds are the traditional homelands of several Native American tribes including the Yurok, Karuk and Tolowa tribes of northern California. These tribes have considered the high country to be of a special spiritual importance since times predating recorded history. Two of the rocks at the peaks of the high country are now called Doctor Rock and Chimney Rock, at about 4000 feet. This region is held to be the center of the spiritual universe because it is believed that the original inhabitants of the world, who left just as the humans appeared, climbed up through holes in th e sky, and these high peaks are the last places they set foot on earth, hence the high concentration of spiritual powers here. The high country is the site of a ritual performed individually and involving days of fasting and meditation to obtain spiritua l purity amidst silence and undisturbed serenity. The few members of these tribes who feel the call to become medicine people derive their powers during these rites. The medicine people are spiritual leaders and are an integral part of the culture. Al though few individuals ever enter these areas, they are of incalculable value to the entire society.

    Since the discovery of gold by the European Americans in the middle of the 1800's, these tribes have met with the same fates as other Native Americans, namely, they have lost access to their homelands, their populations have been decimated by disease and intentional genocide, and much of their culture has been lost because of the forced policies of assimilation. The practice of their religion has been at times forbidden by US law. Policies of forced repatriation, and then allotment of their reservation s to private ownership have resulted in the loss the land they consider sacred and from which they derived their food, clothing, housing, and medicine.

    The Siskyous were transferred mostly into the hands of the US Forest Service, and until the 1950's were mostly ignored. At this time, the post-war economic boom coincided with the depletion of the nation's timber resources in more easily accessible loca tions, and the Forest Service began ambitious plans to open rugged areas to lumber interests. Roads began to crisscross formerly untouched areas of wilderness on Forest Service maps, and a road through what is now called the Six Rivers National Forest wa s planned from Gasquet to Orleans, called the GO Road. Gasquet is on the Smith River in Del Norte County, and Orleans is on the Klamath River in Humboldt County. The road would allow logging of an area rich in conifers and would provide an economic boom to the relatively isolated Del Norte lumber mills. The GO road was started in 1957 and its route was along the stream beds, because this was considered the easiest way to build roads through these rugged mountains. Yearly flooding, especially, the mass ive 1964 flooding demolished so many Forest Service roads in northwestern California, that a new method was adopted; building roads along the ridge tops. The ridge top route of the GO road, brought it directly to Doctor Rock, Chimney Rock, and other high country areas. The road building method was for the Forest Service to put each section of the road out to bid to private contractors. In this way, it would be built in 5-15 mile stretches, from both ends to the middle, the high country.

    Throughout the 1960's, the environmental movement was growing as people began to see and understand many ecological problems. The vociferous environmentalists in northern California were concentrating on the formation of Redwood National Park (RNP). Re dwoods became an easily identifiable megaflora around which people rallied. RNP was formed through many hard fought battles and compromises involving the trade of unforested public lands to private interests in exchange for their recently clearcut redwoo d habitats, which now constitute much of RNP. Attention soon turned to the Siskyous, which are inland and contain redwoods only in their coastal foothills. The prevailing attitude of the entrenched Forest Service and private lumber companies was that th ey had just given up their prime land, and now their next best source of income was being targeted.

    In 1969, the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) was passed by congress, and this mandated more public input in Forest Service land use decisions. Opposition to the GO road had been token until then, and even after, the Forest Service thwarted efforts at public review. In 1972, the Sierra Club successfully sued the Forest Service saying NEPA guidelines were not being followed. There was the beginning of a cultural reawakening among these tribes at this time, and environmentalists approached m embers of the Yurok tribe in order to encourage opposition to the Forest Service plans.

    There had been an absence of Indian opposition for possibly several reasons until this time. The ceremonies practiced in the sacred high country are shrouded in secrecy to a certain degree within the tribes, and especially to foreigners. It is consider ed distasteful to discuss these rites openly, which is understandable by itself, and even more so when we consider that in the past, letting the US government know that something is valuable to native peoples was the most certain way to assure its destruc tion. Another possible reason is that many of the Indians at this point were enjoying the economic benefits of participating in the lumber industry, and due to the loss of cultural pride and identity, it was easy for them to ignore the damage they were c ausing to their traditional practices. Perhaps most importantly, history showed no example of successful opposition to US policies of land use. The sum of US-Indian relations has been that of unilateral decision making by the federal government, enacted through the use of force.

    In September of 1973 was the first public Indian opposition to the GO Road, voiced at public hearings in Eureka and Crescent City. This was just after the first anthropological study conducted by the Forest Service, which stated that there was no cultur al significance to the area. The rest of the decade saw a complex batch of expensive legal battles, Forest Service deception, and slow but steady progress on the GO Road despite numerous injunctions. A subsequent anthropological report commissioned by t he Forest Service and conducted this time by a recognized authority on the Yuroks, claimed that building the GO Road would greatly disturb these sites, and would in effect seal the cultural death of the tribe. Although the Forest Service attempted to ign ore this report, it was used as the basis of a claim that the GO Road would deny freedom of religious practice as guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

    In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Religious Freedom Act, stating that the federal government must take tribal sacredness of land into account when determining the uses allowed on it. Even the legislators who passed this act admitted it was toothless, as it was vague, and there was no stipulation of how much consideration these factors should receive, or what would happen if they were ignored.

    In 1984, environmentalists won a long battle culminating in the formation of the Siskyou Wilderness Area. A Wilderness Area is a designation of public lands wherein areas that are roadless shall remain roadless. This is a recognition of the harm caused by roads. The Forest Service however had the ear of the legislators who drafted the final version, and a 1200" corridor was left between the two pieces of wilderness that bordered the planned route of the partially completed GO Road.

    In 1987, the religious freedoms case had wound its way to the US Supreme Court after winning an injunction in the Circuit and Appeals Courts. By this time the Forest Service had spent much more on the road that the experts claimed it could yield in timb er revenues. The case was much bigger than a single road; the Forest Service was trying to prevent a precedent from being set that would force them to consider tribal religious practices when determining land use. This was the first time a case making t his claim had made it to the Supreme Court. Other similar cases had been defeated at the Circuit Court level, including attempts to prevent dams in Glen Canyon and by the Tennessee Valley Authority which put sacred lands under hundreds of feet of water.

    The injunction was overturned by the Supreme Court in a 5-3 decision. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor stated in her majority opinion that the construction of the road did not prohibit the practice of the religion. She said that if the Forest Service had be en trying to prevent Indians from entering the area, it would be a different situation, and she likened the government's right to build a road on its own property to its right to issue every citizen a social security number - a right which had already bee n established by an earlier court. The dissenting opinion was written by Justice William Brennan who claimed that the court was refusing to acknowledge the constitutional injury the respondents would suffer. Brennan wrote that this decision left the Ind ians with no constitutional recourse to the gravest threats to their religious practices.

    Meanwhile, on another front, efforts were being made to close the corridor in the Wilderness Area. In 1990, as a rider to the bill that established the Smith River Wild and Scenic National Recreation Area, the matter was finally decided, and the corrido r was closed. The uncompleted section of road was less than 7 miles, with a wide two lane paved road suddenly ending into forest on both sides of the uncompleted section.

    The GO Road battle was won on environmental grounds, not on grounds of religious freedoms. As one Yurok stated, to establish the area as wilderness is to completely miss the point. There is no word for wilderness in the Yurok language, as the entire wo rld is considered a whole, of which people are part. The term "environmental racism" is commonly used often in conjunction with targeting minority neighborhoods as toxic waste dumps and for polluting industries, but I believe it would just as appropriate ly be used here. The Forest Service policies enacted across the nation are an extension of the policies of genocide present in US government since its inception. The Native Americans have been unable to prevent their losses of cultural identity, lands, and untold lives in the past, and this trend is disturbingly present today.

    Perhaps some of the successes of the environmental movement could be viewed as a model for advocates of Native Americans. The Endangered Species Act has been interpreted to protect not only the individuals of a species, but also its habitat. Justice O' Connor's decision is incomprehensible to me, and perhaps if a parallel were drawn between the land needed for an animal species to survive, and the land needed for a culture to survive, opinions could be swayed. In order to energize the majority of apath etic citizens to care about the salvation of tropical rain forests, the forests' value was framed in a manner that more directly benefited average American citizens. It has been posed that we could miss the miraculous cure for cancer if we destroy the on e species of tree that produces the "magic bullet". If cultural diversity is not going to be appreciated for its intrinsic value, perhaps it could be appreciated if people believed they could attain spiritual enlightenment by studying or participating in the many indigenous cultures present in America.


Boham, Russell V. GO Road Conference, Nov 30, 1987. Video Cassette. Humboldt State University Media Services.

Dale, Robert Y. The Gasquet to Orleans Road: A case study in Forest Service decision making. Masters Thesis. 1992. Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA.

Norton, Jack. 1979. When Our Worlds Cried: Genocide in Northwestern California. Indian Historical Press. San Francisco, CA.

Simpson, David. The Next 200 Years: A look at a land-use issue in northwest California: The Gasquet-Orleans Road controversy. Video Circle. Berkeley, CA. 1976.

United States. GPO. 1991. Supreme Court Proceedings: 485 US 439 (1987). Lyng Vs. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protection Association.

December 11, 1996

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