SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Native American tribes say California and the United States destroyed sacred sites, artifacts and wetlands building a $300 million stretch of highway in Northern California.
The Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians and Round Valley Indian Tribes of California say that state and federal agencies failed to consult with them before starting work on the Willits Bypass.
But a Caltrans official said the state consulted with the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians all along, and the suing tribes are latecomers to the process.
The four-lane freeway project, intended to relieve congestion in the Mendocino County town of Willits, is 81 percent complete, according to the state department of transportation, Caltrans.
The Oct. 30 federal lawsuit, accuses the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and Caltrans of violating a host of environmental, historic preservation and highway laws, and the Administrative Procedure Act.
Caltrans denied it on Friday, saying it complied with all state and federal laws throughout the process.
"These statements are factually inaccurate, and are damaging not only to this project - which will link Californians north of Willits to the rest of the state with a safe, reliable, and efficient route through Mendocino County - but also to the taxpayers of California, who will ultimately end up footing the bill for this unnecessary legal action," Caltrans said in a statement.
For two years Caltrans has been negotiating a mitigation agreement with the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians to protect historic sites and artifacts in the construction area, according to Caltrans and the lawsuit.
"The original agreement met all state and federal cultural protection laws," said Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie Jr. "They want to try to negotiate protections even above what's required in the law."
According to the lawsuit, Caltrans staff "worked tirelessly" to water down the agreement, submitting five draft versions this year that were "substantially worse" than the previous proposal, "leaving the tribe without a document it can sign."
Under the agreement in place, Frisbie said, Caltrans pays tribal members to monitor construction sites and provide independent oversight for any newly discovered artifacts.
The plaintiff tribes claim the monitors lack the authority to stop ground-disrupting activities in sensitive areas or to investigate the nature and extent of archaeological finds.
Frisbie said Caltrans had to raise its threshold for what sort of discoveries would trigger a more thorough review and stop construction because many sites in the area are laden with underground deposits of chert, flakes of stone that were used to make or sharpen tools.
Given that Native Americans likely inhabited the land for thousands of years, Frisbie said, it is not unusual to find heavy deposits of those stone chips.
"Just because you find some chert on the ground doesn't mean that area is actually a cultural resource that needs to be investigated further," Frisbie said. He said construction freezes and site reviews for chert finds were causing "a lot of extra work and significant delays."
The lawsuit also claims the Federal Highway Administration violated an executive order by failing to consult tribal governments before issuing a 2005 finding that determined the project had "no adverse effect on historic properties."
Frisbie said the state has been consulting with the Sherwood Valley Pomo tribe, the only Native American group in the valley where construction is occurring, since the early 2000s. He said the two tribes that have sued Caltrans did not get involved with the project until 2013, when they began complaining they had been shut out of the planning process.
"This project was not being developed behind closed doors," Frisbie said. "There were multiple public meetings."
The plaintiff tribes also claim Caltrans' plans fail to mitigate harm to the area's plants, animals and waters or compensate for the destruction of 80 acres of wetlands.
Caltrans says 95 percent of the "ground-disturbing" construction is already done and that archaeologists, environmental staff and tribal monitors are working at all construction sites to preserve the area's historic and environmental integrity.
In its proposed mitigation plan with the Sherwood Valley Pomo tribe, Caltrans offered to provide displays and exhibits that explain the historic and continued use of the Little Lake Valley by Native Americans. It also offered to let tribal monitors gain hands-on experience working in a lab with archaeologists to catalogue newly discovered artifacts, Caltrans said.
But the Coyote Valley and Round Valley tribes say the government has refused to stop bulldozers to protect historic sites or properly review archaeological finds uncovered during construction.
They seek declaratory judgment, compensatory damages and an injunction to stop the project and rescind the government's environmental impact statement, which found construction would not adversely affect historic sites.
The tribes are represented by Philip Gregory with Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy of San Francisco.
U.S. District Judge Jeffery White in 2013 dismissed a lawsuit seeking to stop Caltrans from building the four-lane freeway bypass.
This September, another judge refused to issue summary judgment in a Willits journalist's lawsuit against Caltrans, the Highway Patrol and an officer who arrested him while he covered a protest against the bypass .Follow @NicholasIovino
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