SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Native American tribes cannot hold the U.S. government liable for the destruction of sacred sites and artifacts during a $355 million highway project, a federal judge ruled Friday.
Two Native American tribes sued the U.S. Department of Transportation and its California state counterpart, Caltrans, in October 2015, claiming the agencies failed to consult them before starting work on the controversial Willits Bypass.
The project, completed in November 2016, rerouted six miles of Highway 101 around the notoriously congested town center of Willits in Mendocino County. The four-lane bypass became a target for environmental protests when construction began in the spring of 2013.
The Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians and Round Valley Indian Tribes say the government refused to stop bulldozers when historic artifacts were found, and it did not properly review archaeological finds uncovered during construction.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Jeffery White ruled the federal government was not required to retake control of the Caltrans project after tribes complained about the destruction of their sacred sites and relics.
White found a 2007 agreement between Caltrans and the U.S. government gave federal highway officials discretion on whether to reassume control of the project when a tribe concludes an issue of concern “will not be satisfactorily resolved by Caltrans.”
The judge also ruled that the U.S. government did not fail to consult with the tribes when they complained about the destruction of ancestral lands and relics.
“The record shows that the federal defendants and designated tribal representatives communicated by telephone regarding the plaintiffs’ concerns, attempted to negotiate a project specific programmatic agreement, and attended face-to-face meetings about the post-review discoveries and plaintiffs’ concerns,” White wrote in his 21-page ruling.
Last year, Caltrans said it planned to move forward with a mitigation plan to address environmental and historic preservation concerns associated with the project.
The mitigation plan includes planting nearly 800,000 shrubs and trees, removing invasive, non-native plants, improving fish passage at Ryan Creek, restoring stream banks damaged by cattle grazing, and installing new fencing to keep cows off wetlands.
The state also vowed to post interpretive signs at Pomo Indian cultural sites, fund a Pomo exhibit at the Mendocino County Museum and help create materials for tribes to educate youth about their history and culture.
The tribes’ attorney, Philip Gregory, could not be reached by phone Friday afternoon. But last year Gregory said “putting up a sign” falls short of meeting Caltrans’ obligation to the tribes.
Caltrans on Friday had no immediate answer to questions regarding the status and funding of the mitigation project.
White said he would issue a separate ruling on the tribes’ and Caltrans’ dueling motions for summary judgment in the case.
The U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately return emails seeking comment Friday afternoon.