Caltrans will remain part of local tribes’ lawsuit over Willits bypass, judge rules

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WILLITS,CA., 01/30/17 — A federal judge in Oakland ruled on January 23 that CalTrans shall remain a defendant — along with the Federal Highway Administration — in a lawsuit filed by the Coyote Valley and Round Valley Bands of Pomo Indians over the management and mitigation of cultural resources and archeological sites during the construction of the Willits Bypass project.

The two tribes filed the lawsuit in 2015, after claiming throughout the construction of the Willits Bypass that CalTrans was not fulfilling their obligations to the tribes under federal historic preservation laws to properly handle the archeological sites on project lands. The tribes also claim that CalTrans failed to properly protect the cultural resources found during the project, destroying sites in violation of federal and state laws.

The ruling, by U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White, came in response to a motion to dismiss filed by CalTrans, asking that they be removed from the lawsuit. The case will now move forward — there is a hearing scheduled for February 17, 2017.

In a press release, Coyote Valley Tribal Chairman Michael Hunter said, “Our Tribal elders felt it was essential to stand up to the aggressive and resistant manner Caltrans[sic] has treated the local Tribes… Our claims assert Caltrans refuses to protect ancestral archaeological sites and we ask other Indian nations and concerned citizens to join in demanding Caltrans protect our sacred sites and that government-to-government consultations with Tribes be conducted meaningfully and respectfully.”

Here’s the full press release below:

January 26, 2017: On January 23, 2016, United States District Court Judge Jeffrey White issued an order denying a Motion to Dismiss brought by the California Department of Transportation concerning the Willits Bypass Project. The Willits Bypass Project is a 6 mile long rerouting of Highway 101 through Little Lake Valley, near the city of Willits, in Mendocino County.

In 2015, the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians and the Round Valley Indian Tribes brought this lawsuit in federal court against Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The Tribes’ complaint asserted claims for violations of various federal statutes, including the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. Sections 4321, et seq., the National Historic Preservation Act, 54 U.S.C. Sections 300101, et seq., Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act, 49 U.S.C. Section 303(c), and Section 18(a) of the Federal-Aid Highway Act, 23 U.S.C. Section 138.

In their legal action, the Tribes allege Caltrans and FHWA failed to properly identify and protect their “ancestral, sacred, cultural, and archeological sites and resources” and destroyed certain sites during the construction of the Willits Bypass Project.   The Tribes also claim these Defendants failed to “(a) adequately address the direct, indirect, and cumulative cultural, environmental, and historic impacts of the Willits Bypass Project; (b) identify and finalize the details of the mitigation plan or its environmental and cultural impacts; and (c) commit to necessary mitigation measures.”

Judge White also granted Caltrans’ Motion to the extent of striking the Tribes’ claim for monetary damages from the complaint.  At the same time, the Court allowed the Tribes to file a motion for leave to amend the complaint to add a claim against Caltrans under the Federal Torts Claims Act.

Michael Hunter, Chairman of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians, declared:  “Our Tribal elders felt it was essential to stand up to the aggressive and resistant manner Caltrans has treated the local Tribes.  Even after filing this action, Caltrans refuses to protect our cultural heritage.  As our Complaint alleges, on September 12, 2013, in the dead of night, Caltrans’s bulldozers destroyed one of our sacred sites in Little Lake Valley without tribal monitors notified or present. The National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation referenced the destruction of this ancient village as a ‘major violation of federal law.’  Our claims assert Caltrans refuses to protect ancestral archaeological sites and we ask other Indian nations and concerned citizens to join in demanding Caltrans protect our sacred sites and that government-to-government consultations with Tribes be conducted meaningfully and respectfully.”

Motions to Dismiss are typically made by a defendant to assert that the complaint does not state a claim. As a result of Judge White’s order refusing to dismiss the Tribes’ complaint, the case is will move forward.  The next step is a hearing on the Motion to Dismiss brought by the FHWA and a Case Management Conference, currently scheduled for February 17, 2016.

The Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians and the Round Valley Indian Tribes of California are represented by Joseph W. Cotchett, Philip L. Gregory, and Pete McCloskey of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, along with co-counsel Sharon Duggan in Oakland.

For further information, please visit: http://www.cpmlegal.com

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