Governor vetoes sacred sites bill

By AGNES DIGGS North County Times
October 2, 2002

"Gov. Gray Davis' veto Monday of a controversial bill aimed at protecting California Indian sacred sites off tribal lands was met with sharp criticism from the Pechanga tribal chairman.

The bill, Senate Bill 1828, by Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, was supported by more than 50 California tribes and state and national associations. It was heavily criticized by developers, business groups and local governments who said the law would have given tribes too much power in local land-use decisions.

In his veto message, the governor seemed to agree with that argument.

"As this bill is written, someone might invest large sums of money in a project before learning that the development implicates a sacred site," Davis wrote. "In addition, while this bill draws on the California Environmental Review Act process, it makes some key changes that are highly controversial. It gives Native Americans influence over the (environmental review) process that no other party, agency or governmental body now has."

The Pechanga band of Luiseno Mission Indians strongly supported the bill and criticized Davis for the decision. Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro said tribal leaders learned of the veto in a newspaper story Tuesday.

"With this veto, the governor has broken our hearts," Macarro said. "He's crushed the hope of our next generation by clearing the way for continued destruction of native sacred sites throughout the state. The governor had a profile-in-courage test and he failed. He had a tremendous opportunity to leave a legacy and set an example of what is good about politics in the United States, and he failed."

In vetoing the legislation hours before his midnight deadline to act on bills sent to him in the closing days of the legislative session, Davis said, "There is no doubt more must be done to protect sacred sites. Unfortunately, this bill is a flawed attempt to do that."

The legislation passed the state Senate and the Assembly with bipartisan support, led by Burton and Assembly member Bill Leonard, R-Rancho Cucamonga.

The bill would have required local governments to notify a tribe of proposed construction within 20 miles of a reservation and protect from development sacred sites that tribes have used for generations.

One of the sacred areas that stood to be affected by the bill was the Great Oak, located on the 724-acre ranch formerly owned by mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner. The site of the centuries-old tree is now owned by the Pechanga tribe, which has petitioned the Bureau of Indian Affairs to have it annexed to the reservation, effectively blocking an attempt by San Diego Gas & Electric Co. to use the land for a controversial 500,000-volt power line.

Few counties stood to be more affected than San Diego County, with its 17 tribes ---- most of which did not take a public stance on the bill.

But San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn, whose district includes five Indian reservations that operate casinos and was an outspoken critic of the bill, said he applauded the governor for his veto of the measure.

"I think it was the right thing to do," Horn said. He added that because of the religious implications of the bill, he did not believe that the measure was constitutional.

"These are religious sites and no other religion has the right to make land-use decisions for us," Horn said.

SB 1828 was initiated to stop Glamis Gold Ltd., a Nevada-based company, from building a 1,600-acre open-pit gold mine in the Imperial Valley near tribal lands belonging to the Quechan Indian Nation. After a six-year battle, including a public review process, the project was denied in 2001 under then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Babbitt's ruling was reversed by his successor, Gale Norton, in November 2001. The Department of the Interior revived the plan for the mine proposal on Friday ---- Californian Indian Day.

"It's a sad day in our tribal nation's history to be betrayed by Gale Norton and the Bush administration and now Gov. Davis," Macarro said. "Together, they're endorsing the continued desecration of our sacred sites."

Davis signed two other bills Monday related to the treatment of sacred sites.

SB 1816, the Native American Historic Resource Protection Act, makes it a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail to deface or destroy an Indian historic, cultural or sacred site that is listed or may be eligible for listing in the California Register of Historic Resources.

The second, SB 483, was a companion bill to SB 1828. It bars metallic mining within a mile of any sacred site unless two conditions are met. All excavations must be back-filled and graded to their original contours and excess materials must be placed back into the excavated areas. The second defines financial assurances.

"The governor is holding his signing of SB 483 out to the Quechan Nation as a token ---- like so many glass beads," Macarro said."