WILLITS, Calif. (KGO) -- Two Native American tribes are suing Caltrans claiming the agency knowingly destroyed important archaeological sites. This the latest blow to a troubled freeway project ABC7 News has been investigating for more than two years. The project is on Highway 101 in Mendocino County where Caltrans is building a bypass around the town of Willits.
The Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians and the Round Valley Indian tribe accuse Caltrans of wiping out their history during construction of the six-mile freeway. The road goes through a valley occupied by Native Americans for hundreds of years until white settlers drove them out in the 1800s.
The tribes are filing suit against Caltrans, the US Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. They claim Caltrans is illegally destroying historic and sacred Native American sites.
The tribes' attorney Phil Gregory said, "It's as if Caltrans decided to bulldoze through your church."
Caltrans claims it followed all legal requirements, searching for archaeological sites before construction started two years ago. But Gregory says Caltrans failed. "Once Caltrans started construction, it found over 30 sites and its clear Caltrans did not do a proper investigation, because there's no way Caltrans should have missed these 30 sites."
Caltrans has admitted to impacting one known site, but blamed it on a mapping error. Gregory says it was no accident. "Caltrans had trucks come in the dead of night and destroy that site without alerting the tribes in advance."
The $300 million freeway bypass is about 80 percent finished, but the tribes say as construction and environmental work continue, crews are still finding more artifacts. Gregory says he understands "Caltrans is finding areas that suggest not only human remains but gravesites."
Caltrans denies any findings that indicate possible human remains or graves. Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie told us by phone the agency has worked with the tribes in good faith. "We have been working closely with state and federal agencies throughout this project. We have not destroyed any villages or cultural areas on this project and we have been working diligently for the last almost two years with all three local tribes."
This freeway is scheduled to open sometime next year. The tribes plan to ask a judge to stop construction until Caltrans comes to a formal agreement about how to handle the archaeological findings.
Caltrans has also been working with a third tribe, the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo. Sherwood Valley is not a party to the lawsuit, but issued a press release indicating major dissatisfaction with their talks with Caltrans. This is the release:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE -- October 28, 2015, from Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo
Caltrans Stalls Finalization of Important Agreement related to Bypass
Willits, CA -- Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo is reporting that after 18 months of effort, Caltrans has indefinitely stalled, if not altogether abandoned, the finalization of a crucial agreement document related to the Willits Bypass Project.
From January -December 2014, Sherwood Valley worked closely with Caltrans to create a Programmatic Agreement (PA) that would mitigate the adverse effects to historic properties occurring within the footprint of the Bypass Project, as well as set forth protocols for how to best manage any new discoveries of cultural resources during Project construction. When new Project staff took over in 2015, substantial internal agency edits to a nearly complete PA began in earnest. According to the Tribe, District 3 staff has worked tirelessly to revise the PA in ways that have moved the document further and further away from an agreement that responsibly manages the historic properties in Little Lake Valley. Sherwood Valley also reports each of the five draft versions of the PA provided to them in 2015 has been substantially worse than its predecessor, leaving the Tribe without a document it can sign.
Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo's comments on the last version of a draft PA, which were provided to Caltrans on September 2, 2015, highlight the reasons for the Tribe's lack of concurrence and concern:
"Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo's Tribal Council cannot agree to or accept CT's July 2015 version of the [PA] because the execution of CT's proposals will:
According to the Tribe, this same communication included a request for Caltrans to contact the Tribe to bring the PA to finalization. A subsequent letter dated October 2, 2015 made a similar plea. The Tribe is now reporting that CT has not responded to either correspondence. Such reticence is deeply disturbing to Sherwood Valley. However, it has not altered the Tribe's resolve to continue its demands for the successful execution of a Project-based agreement, as evidenced by the following statement from Tribal Council:
"Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo's leadership has consulted in good faith with Caltrans regarding the Willits Bypass Project for over two years and acted in a trustworthy manner with unimpeachable integrity. We have tried to build consensus, attempting to understanding Caltrans' limitations while championing our unwavering goal of being responsible stewards to our aboriginal lands-the Little Lake Valley-and the natural and cultural resources that this landscape contains. Sherwood Valley has spent hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars in an attempt to create a PA that adequately manages resources of concern to our community and offers some restitution for the great harm inflicted upon Mitom Kai and its people, the Mitom Kai Poma and their descendants. It has been a grief-filled process, punctuated by disrespectful, subversive, and cavalier attitudes and acts on the part of Caltrans. We find this behavior particularly egregious given the fact that the Tribe has not attempted to delay or stop construction of the bypass, despite it being a project that has never been supported by Sherwood Valley. Rather, the Tribe has only asked for the State and its agents to merely comply with the letter and spirit of existing statutes, regulations, and directives while undertaking the Project-most notably Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and Presidential and Gubernatorial Executive Orders and Memoranda, as well as USDOT and CT policies, on the subject of Tribal consultation and environmental justice. The Tribe finds Caltrans' refusal to continue conducting the consultation required to finalize a mitigation-based agreement for the Willits Bypass Project unjustifiable and unacceptable. Despite the agency's recalcitrance and lack of integrity on this matter; however, Sherwood Valley will remain steadfast in our efforts to exact satisfactory mitigation for the adverse impacts to our community's resources within the Little Lake Valley. Our Tribe will not quietly or idly stand by and permit a failed PA to be yet another tragic outcome of the Willits Bypass Project."
Related to those efforts, Sherwood Valley says that they will continue to reach out to Caltrans, as well as other consulting parties on the Project-including the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Office of Historic Preservation, and the Federal Highways Administration-to finalize an agreement document that secures mitigation for those historic properties negatively impacted by the Bypass Project. The Tribe has also indicated that they will maintain an in-field monitoring presence and persist in advocating for more substantial and valuable archaeological investigations and more meaningful and transparent consultation moving forward.
ABOUT SHERWOOD VALLEY BAND OF POMO
The Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo is a federally -recognized Indian Tribe. Sherwood Valley Rancheria is located within the Tribe's aboriginal homelands and is headquartered in Willits, CA. The Rancheria was established under Secretarial Order in 1909 and is governed under a Constitution and Bylaws duly adopted and approved by the Secretary of the Interior on July 25, 1974. The Sherwood Valley Tribal Council, as representatives of the Tribe's membership, strives to promote and perpetuate the protection of natural and cultural resources for future generations.