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Measure seeks to protect Indian sites; Opposition builds to California bill

By Gregg Jones, Los Angeles Times, 9/15/2002
Article at boston.com

SACRAMENTO - In the battle over California's Senate Bill 1828, both sides agree that American Indian sacred sites should be protected.

But how? And at what cost to development?

The bill is supposed to safeguard sacred Indian sites by compelling government agencies to notify an Indian tribe of any proposed development project within 20 miles of its reservation, then requiring the developer to work with the tribe to ease the effects of the project.

The reality could be an avalanche of lawsuits and endless delays for developers and local governments, business groups and other opponents contend.

Governor Gray Davis has until the end of the month to sign or veto the bill, which the state Legislature approved before adjourning Sept. 1.

Opponents - an all-star Capitol coalition that includes local governments, developers, ranchers, and other business interests - say economic growth and development in California are at stake. The Senate's own staff analysis says the bill could cost state agencies and private businesses millions of dollars a year in project delays.

At the governor's urging, the bill's author - Senate leader John Burton of San Francisco - accepted amendments to address some of these concerns. Davis's spokeswoman, Hilary McLean, noted the governor's awareness that business groups still are not satisfied, and she said Davis has not decided whether he will sign the legislation.

Ignoring California's Indian tribes is not an easy choice for any state politician these days.

With casino-generated cash rolling in, the tribes are a fast-rising political force, plying Davis and other politicians with millions in campaign contributions and expanding their legislative interests beyond gambling issues.

The relative ease with which such a controversial bill sailed through the Legislature attests to growing Indian clout, opponents and supporters of the legislation say.

At every turn, the tribes routed their opponents: The state Senate passed the bill 22-10 on May 29. An amended version sailed through the state Assembly in a 53-12 vote Aug. 28. And the Senate approved that version the next day, 22-7, sending the bill to the governor's desk.

The tribes and their supporters have insisted that the bill is not as far-reaching as opponents fear.

''If the bill passes, it will help us a lot,'' said Pauline Jose, cultural committee chairwoman of the Quechan tribe, whose fight with Glamis Gold Inc. over a proposed Imperial County strip mine inspired the bill. ''All we want to do is preserve and protect the sacred sites.''

Opponents say the prescription imposed by the bill is too extreme.

Speaking against the bill during last month's floor debate, state Senator Steve Peace of El Cajon held up a map that showed that most new projects in San Diego County would be subject to tribal vetting under the bill.

''I am very fearful of the potential consequences,'' he said.

Opponents have said the extent of those consequences is not clear because the definition of ''sacred site'' is so broad and the location of existing sites is secret to prevent looting. In part, the bill defines a sacred site as ''any geophysical or geographical area or feature'' that ''is sacred to Native American tribes by virtue of its traditional cultural or religious significance or ceremonial use, or by virtue of a ceremonial or cultural requirement.''

The California Native American Heritage Commission maintains an official list of about 1,500 Indian cultural and religious sites.

Only about 300 of them are religious sites, with an average size of one-fourth of an acre, said Laura Miranda, a Pechanga Indian and senior staff attorney for the California Indian Legal Services.

The Burton bill, however, would allow Indians to add more sites to the list by presenting oral histories or other evidence to support their claims.

Opponents say that could cripple development projects with delays and lawsuits, such as the ongoing Pechanga challenge that has blocked a proposed San Diego Gas & Electric Co. transmission line in Riverside County.

What worries many opponents most is the bill's granting of protection to Indian sacred sites beyond the project review criteria laid down by the California Environmental Quality Act, the law that oversees development.

This story ran on page A28 of the Boston Globe on 9/15/2002. Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

RELATED LINK:
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