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By GREGG JONES
A formidable Capitol coalition of local governments, builders and
landowners is feeling the power of California's Native American lobby in a
fight over a bill created to safeguard sacred sites.
Senate Bill 1828 would compel government agencies to notify a Native
American tribe of any proposed development within 20 miles of its
reservation and could require developers to reduce the effects of such a
According to business groups and other opponents, if it is signed into
law, the reality could be an avalanche of lawsuits and endless development
delays. They say economic growth and development in California are at
Gov. Gray Davis has until the end of the month to sign or veto the bill,
which the Legislature approved before adjourning Sept. 1.
The Senate's own staff analysis says the bill could cost businesses and
state agencies millions of dollars a year in project delays.
At the governor's urging, the bill's author, Senate leader John Burton
(D-San Francisco), accepted amendments to address some of these concerns.
Davis' spokeswoman, Hilary McLean, noted the governor's awareness that
business groups still are not satisfied. She said Davis had not decided
whether he would sign the legislation.
Ignoring California's Native American 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
The relative ease with which such a controversial bill sailed through the
Legislature attests to growing Indian clout, both opponents and supporters
At every turn, the tribes routed their opponents: The Senate passed the
bill 22 to 10 on May 29. An amended version sailed through the Assembly in
a 53-12 vote Aug. 28. And the Senate approved that version the next day,
22 to 7, sending the bill to the governor's desk.
The tribes and their supporters have insisted that SB 1828 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 SB 1828 is too extreme.
Speaking against the bill during last month's floor debate, Sen. Steve
Peace (D-El Cajon) held up a map showing that, under the bill, most new
projects in San Diego County would be subject to tribal vetting.
"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 kept 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
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
Opponents say that could cripple development projects with delays and
lawsuits, such as the Pechanga challenge that has blocked a proposed San
Diego Gas & Electric Co. transmission line in Riverside County.
"We still have concerns about the kind of obstacles that could exist with
the language of the bill," said Michael Turner, government relations
manager at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority.
A constitutional challenge by business interests is also looming.
Opponents contend that the bill would violate the 1st Amendment by
granting official recognition to Indian religious beliefs.
What concerns many opponents most is that the bill would grant protection
to Indian sacred sites beyond the project review criteria laid down by the
California Environmental Quality Act, the law that oversees development in
That review process seeks a balance of economic, social and cultural
considerations in weighing whether a project can proceed. Under the Burton
bill, if a developer and a tribe can't agree on how to safeguard a sacred
site threatened by a project, economic considerations would be eliminated
as a valid reason for proceeding.
That would give tribes a de facto veto over most projects, opponents have
said. "The implications could be significant on infrastructure projects,
economic development and job creation," said Jeanne Cain, vice president
of government relations for the California Chamber of Commerce.
Supporters, however, said Assembly amendments have addressed most of these
concerns. For example, they said tribal veto power has been eliminated by
shifting the final say over projects from the Native American Heritage
Commission--as the bill originally prescribed--to the local planning
commission, city council or county board of supervisors.
"Yeah, it raises the bar a little bit, but it's not intended to--and
won't--hinder economic development or cost jobs," said Mark Macarro,
tribal chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, a Southern
California-based tribe at the forefront of the fight for SB 1828. "All
we're saying is, let's be a little more responsible, let's be a little
more judicious about how we go about development."
In a larger sense, Indian leaders and their supporters have said, the bill
is about giving Native American beliefs the same respect and protection as
those of other Californians.
"Current law allows wholesale destruction of tribal sacred sites and
cultural resources," Macarro said. "We've been trying to deal with this
for years, but with the pace of development and the existing law, we're
Not anymore, thanks to the growing list of Indian friends in the
Reining in property owners and developers is the sort of cause that has
long been associated with Burton and other liberal Democratic legislators.
But in the battle for SB 1828, Burton--a favorite of Indian tribes
dispensing political contributions--has some unlikely bedfellows.
For starters, there's Sen. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta), an outspoken
property-rights advocate in previous legislative debates. Speaking in
support of the bill, Battin noted that he might have more Indian tribes in
his district than any other senator.
Those tribes have generously supported Battin, giving him nearly $400,000
in political contributions since January 2000.
Battin said the bill is about respecting Native American religious
beliefs, not stopping development.
"I also get contributions from developers and all sorts of people on both
sides of this issue, and my votes are not predicated at all by political
contributions," he said in an interview. "The tribes have every right to
express themselves politically through contributions."
Another influential Indian ally is veteran Assemblyman Bill Leonard (R-San
Bernardino), a longtime critic of what he characterizes as the regulatory
burden on businesses, except in this case.
"He's not a screaming environmentalist," Burton wryly noted about his old
adversary and newfound ally. "He's not a do-gooder."
Leonard is a frequent recipient of campaign contributions from Native
American tribes, both for his past Assembly campaigns and in his current
quest for a Board of Equalization seat. Term limits prevent Leonard from
remaining in the Assembly.
In his Board of Equalization campaign, Leonard has reported $149,894 in
contributions during the first half of 2002. More than $50,000 came from
Native American tribes and their political action committees.
Like Battin and other supporters of the bill, Leonard has said his vote
had nothing to do with campaign contributions. "I respect religion, and I
believe the Constitution requires us to respect religion," he said in an
He also sympathizes with landowners who would be affected by the bill, he
said. "It's one of these balancing acts that the Legislature is called
upon to do," Leonard said.
Indian tribes are not the only ones contributing heavily in the debate
over SB 1828. Developers, ranchers, growers, construction companies and
energy firms--many of whom oppose the bill--have been significant campaign
contributors to legislators for years.
But Macarro, the Pechanga tribal leader, said campaign contributions and
lobbying are finally giving Native Americans a voice in shaping public
policy. "In this day and age, to be able to have the resources to draw on
to right some of the major inequities that have occurred over the past 150
years gives us hope," Macarro said. "There's this legacy of dispossession
and disenfranchisement that now we can do something about."
Los Angeles Times
SEND a letter to the editor:
SEND a letter of support to Governor Davis for SB 1828, protecting Quechan
Indian Pass and requiring complete backfill for open pit mines:
Hon. Governor Gray Davis
State Capitol Building
Sacramento, CA 95814
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