CalTrans Destroys Archeological Site

by Jennifer Poole, September 25, 2013

A federal historic preservation agency called out Caltrans last week for a “major breach” of its commitment to protect historic properties, as required by the project’s environmental impact statement.

The Sherwood Valley Rancheria of Pomo Indians (SVR) got a notice from Caltrans on Friday, September 13 that an archaeological site with Pomo cultural resources known to Caltrans has “been destroyed by construction activities,” said SVR Tribal Chair Mike Fitzgerral in a statement given to Willits Weekly.

As per the September 13 notice from Caltrans: “Caltrans has discovered that one of the sites” — CA-MEN-3571 — “is actually located within the ADI [area of direct impact]” of the project. “As you know,” the notice continues, “wick drains have been installed in that area and 3 feet of fill has been placed.”

The exact location of CA-MEN-3571 and specific descriptions of cultural resources found there and at other known archaeological sites — discovered before and after construction started in the bypass area — is not public information. Federal and state law keeps this information confidential due to the potential for theft or vandalism.

According to the tribe’s statement, CA-MEN-3571 was identified by Caltrans in 2011, during archaeological investigations of the area, as part of the bypass footprint’s “area of potential effects,” or APE, but: “later, in 2012, Caltrans claimed that changes to the … APE for the project [i.e., changes to the bypass route] resulted in the site no longer being located in the project footprint."

“However,” the statement from the tribe continues: “Caltrans has just confirmed that the site does indeed exist within the APE for the project and has, over the last four months, been severely impacted by the removal of topsoil and the installation of 1400-1500 wick drains. What little, if anything, remains of CA-MEN-3571 is now inundated with 3 feet of fill.”

A September 18 letter to Caltrans from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, an independent federal agency in Washington DC, characterizes this destruction of CA-MEN-3571 as a “major breach of the protection of a historic property that Caltrans committed to protect as part of its determination of ‘No Adverse Effect’ [in the project’s environmental impact statement].”

The Advisory Council is charged with administering the National Historic Preservation Act's Section 106 review process for agency projects, which includes identification and analysis of historic properties, analysis of the proposed project’s effects, and exploration of ways to avoid or mitigate those effects.

In the environmental impact statement for the bypass project, on page 3 of Appendix A, Caltrans states: “If buried cultural materials are encountered during construction, it is Caltrans' policy that all work in that area must halt until a qualified archaeologist can evaluate the nature and significance of the find.”

Willits Weekly asked tribal chair Fitzgerral and consultant Lee Rains, who’s been working with the tribe since May on bypass issues, why the Caltrans notice about CA-MEN-3571 came so long after topsoil was removed, with wick drains already installed and the fill process well underway.

 

“That’s the $20 million question,” said Rains, who consults on historic preservation law and regulatory compliance. “What actions took place, or didn’t take place as far as what Caltrans is calling ‘an error,’ we don’t know,” chairman Fitzgerral said.

The tribe hopes to get “a thorough accounting” in an upcoming meeting scheduled with Caltrans staff. But, the tribal council has been “frustrated” by previous meetings with Caltrans, Fitzgerall said, “where a lot of words were said,” but nothing seemed to change as far as consultation with the tribe or actions on the ground.

The tribe has asked Caltrans repeatedly since May to “plot all known cultural resource locations onto existing project plans so as to avoid damaging the resources” and to ensure “responsible in-field monitoring of these locations.”

The tribe has also requested that Caltrans place protective barriers around seven known archeological sites, including CA-MEN-3571. These requests have been “summarily dismissed” by Caltrans, the statement says. Requests for explanation have gone “unanswered.”

The Caltrans draft environmental impact report for the Willits bypass project reads (page 3 of chapter 5 of the DEIR): “ARCH-1: Once a preferred alternative is selected, and if that alternative is one of the ‘build’ alternatives, Caltrans will conduct a detailed examination of archaeological properties. The Final EIR/EIS will report the findings of this examination and determine the level of impact and if further mitigation is required.”

But in the final environmental impact statement (page 3 of Appendix A of the EIS), that paragraph is struck out, with this sentence added under it: “Mitigation Measure ARCH-1 is no longer required. This has already been accomplished.”

The letter from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation also reports three and potentially four “post-review” discoveries of “NR eligible” historic properties that have occurred during construction of the bypass project. “NR eligible” means the sites are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The undertaking is being carried out in a way in which historic properties that were supposed to be avoided are now substantially affected,” the letter states, “and the undertaking activities are affecting NR eligible historic properties within the APE.”

The Advisory Council is recommending that Caltrans “re-open the consultation” and work with the Sherwood tribe, the California State Historic Preservation Officer and “other Section 106 consulting parties” on “appropriate steps to resolve the adverse effects of the undertaking on historic properties and to resolve concerns.”

Re-opening the Section 101 consultation process, the letter states, could result “in an outcome that would sufficiently address all of the historic property concerns with this project to avoid further delays.”

Tribal council members believe “the unnecessary destruction of CA-MEN-3571 serves as a powerful illustration of what non-compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act can reap,” the statement reports.

SVR can only hope that this stark realization will now compel Caltrans to heed the tribe’s long-voiced call for the agency to re-open consultation under Section 106, review their previous identification efforts, revise their Finding of Effect, and create a Memorandum of Agreement for this project that would, from this point forward, ensure that injuries like that experienced by CA-MEN-3571 are not repeated,” the statement continues, “and that the history and the homeland of the descendants of the original inhabitants of the Little Lake Valley are treated with all due respect and protection.”

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