(CN) – In what was called “long overdue,” the California Coastal Commission Wednesday held the first public hearing on a new policy to consult with Native American tribes in California on coastal matters.
The state agency tasked with upholding the Coastal Act and deciding coastal development issues up and down California’s coastline is in the process of developing its Tribal Consultation Policy intended to improve communications between the commission and federally and state-recognized Native American Tribes.
California is home to the largest number of tribes in the contiguous United States, with 109 federally-recognized tribes and an additional 55 tribes recognized by the state of California through the Native American Heritage Commission.
The new policy follows a 2011 executive order by Gov. Jerry Brown to every state agency to encourage communication and consultation with tribes as well as state legislation passed in 2014 requiring lead agencies which prepare environmental documents under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, to consult with tribes in local government planning processes.
It also follows a provision already included in the Coastal Act to use mitigation measures to protect tribal archaeological sites during development along the coast.
Coastal Commission executive director Jack Ainsworth said Wednesday getting the policy adopted was one of his first goals when he was appointed to the leadership position a little over a year ago. He said the Tribal Consultation Policy “should have been done years ago.”
A year in the making, the commission’s new policy aims to consult with tribes earlier in the process of reviewing land use decisions, or as commission staff member Mark Delaplaine put it: “Making sure we don’t just forget about everybody until it’s time for a public hearing.”
The policy will also establish a tribal liaison as a go-to person for tribal consultation and to advise and train commission staffers on tribal affairs.
Delaplaine, who is overseeing the development of the Tribal Consultation Policy, said in an interview following the information session, staff got “a number of homework assignments” from tribal representatives who gave feedback prior to and during Wednesday’s hearing.
Many speakers were concerned at Wednesday’s hearing the policy would only require the commission to consult with federally and state-recognized tribes, leaving out tribes or individuals that aren’t formally recognized but claim to have ancestral ties to coastal lands.
Delaplaine said the commission needs to work on “who we consult with and under what conditions” and still needs to figure out how tribes or individuals not consulted in the beginning can still be involved in matters that come before Coastal Commissioners.
While the Coastal Commission follows a slew of other state agencies who have already adopted policies on tribal consultation, Delaplaine said the Coastal Commission has a “unique role” because of the “umbrella of resources that really covers the gamut of everything” that the Coastal Commission oversees.
Sacred Places Institute executive director Angela Mooney D’Arcy said in an interview the “Coastal Commission’s decision to recognize and uplift government consultation is hugely important,” especially in terms of the commission’s status as a major land use agency in the country.
The leader of the indigenous nonprofit which advocates for environmental and social justice said there are 40 native nations with ancestral ties to the California coast, but that the coast is important to all California Native American tribes.
Another public hearing on the Tribal Consultation Policy will be held at the Coastal Commission’s meeting next month. The commission is expected to formally adopt a policy sometime this summer.