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Coastal Trail Or Trail Of Tears?

The physical geography that First Nations people have historically inhabited conveniently remains a mystery to most people in the dominant society. Seemingly, those willfully ignorant of such knowledge would include everyone in decision-making positions at the City of Fort Bragg and the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) who, for the better part of a decade, have been devising an infrastructure project along 4.5 miles of coastline outside of the city without bothering to consult the people who have inhabited the land since time immemorial.

Those people, the Northern Pomo, lived along the coastal bluffs and contiguous redwood forests in and around what is now called “Fort Bragg” for at least 10,000 years prior to the arrival of Gold Rush-era California intruders. Many Northern Pomo people are currently part of the Sherwood Valley Rancheria in Willits, which is comprised of various coastal Pomo people. But some still live right in the vicinity of the historical Pomo village of Kaidu, near the mouth of the Noyo River.

The infrastructure project, known as the Fort Bragg Coastal Trail and Restoration Project, encompasses virtually all of the beachfront land west of the city, north of the Noyo River, and south of the Georgia Pacific Mill site.

On the surface, most people would view the project as entirely benign. It dovetails nicely with the cultural sensibilities and economic interests of most people in the area, outdoors enthusiasts and those linked to the coast's tourist economy being chief among them. The project would develop a network of trails and walking paths, stretching north from Pudding Creek Trestle Bridge south to Soldier Bay. It would also include habitat restoration on 45 acres of land currently covered in asphalt, allowing vegetation and trees to return to those places, once again making it habitable for wildlife.

Of historical significance, this new park would mark the first time in more than 100 years that the coast outside of Fort Bragg would be publicly accessible. The city obtained funding for the project from a wide variety of sources, including the California Coastal Conservancy, a federal appropriation, Prop 84 funds through State Parks, the Fort Bragg’s General Fund, and a Bicycle Transportation Account Grant.

There's only one problem with these seemingly groovy plans to open up a new area where hundreds of thousands of tourists will experience the grandeur of the oceanfront strolling, presumably before retiring into town to enrich the fortunes of the town's boutique tourist economy. It so happens many of the Northern Pomo's most sacred sites, including burial sites, would be desecrated by the trail development.

As Talisha Melluish, director of Sherwood Valley Rancheria's Historic Preservation Office, puts it, “the tribe is just disappointed that a city that wants to build a trail on this area wouldn't know the history of the area much better.”

As currently envisioned, a significant amount of construction resulting in considerable disturbance to the ground and that which lies beneath it, would go into creating the trails. The primary trail on the North Parkland would be eight feet wide and made of asphalt, as would the primary trail in the South Parkland. They would also include a four foot wide gravel shoulder on their western edge. The secondary trails would be five foot wide asphalt. All of this would be taking place in ancient burial sites.

An archeological survey by CalTrans found 22 archeological sites with Northern Pomo's human and cultural remains that are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, the United States federal government's official list of sites, structures, and objects deemed worthy of preservation purely by virtue of their historical significance.

“Faunal remains are present at many of the sites in the District and studies of those materials can inform research into changing subsistence orientations, the effects of intensified exploitation on the local ecosystem, and other related topics. Plant remains, while not yet studied at the sites in the District, are implied by the presence of milling implements a several of the sites. The presence of a rare Franciscan chert outcrop, combined with the ready availability of wave-worn graywacke cobbles that could be adapted for grinding and pecking tools, together imply the potential for technological studies of toolmaking. Abundant obsidian is likely to yield insights into trade patterns through that also have important implications for the hypothesized prehistoric cultural displacement already mentioned. Lastly, this District provides an exceptional opportunity to investigate historic period cultural adjustments due to the continuity of Native American occupation during the operation of the Mendocino Reservation and subsequent years when the ethnographic village of Kadiu was occupied. Biological data from Native Americans in the Noyo Point Cemetery may also yield important data on health status, nutrition, and related topics.”

To add to the historical significance of the site, particularly for native people, the land was also part of the Mendocino Indian Reservation, which operated from 1853 to 1860 and acted as the first Indian reservation on the North Coast. The reservation spanned in size from the South Bank of the Noyo River to around Westport.

Ironically, Fort Bragg officials did undertake a fairly extensive “community decision-making process” about the trail project beginning in 2002, including several meetings soliciting public input and site walks that involved “various stakeholders,” as the city's literature on the project put it They failed, however, to contact any Northern Pomo people about these meetings.

Representatives of the city counter the criticism that they have failed to consult with the aboriginal people of the land by claiming that Pomo people could have attended the community involvement meetings as easily as any of the other “stakeholders.” Indigenous people, however, are not part of a communal melting pot blended together with white society and other ethnic groups. Rather, they are sovereign groups and require that negotiations take place on terms that work for them, not just those that work for the dominant society.

The Sherwood Valley Rancheria has strong grounds for a lawsuit based on the lack of consultation. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) requires that agencies that receive federal funding to develop infrastructure follow a set process for consulting with Native people. In this case, the City of Fort Bragg received federal grant funding by way of CalTrans, CalTrans is required to oversee the “Tribal Consultation Process,” and the City of Fort Bragg is also required to partake in that process.

While the City did send out a letter to a large number of federally recognized Northern California tribes in 2009 probing for their input on a vaguely described restoration project on the coast, the Supreme Court ruled in Pueblo of Sandia v US that a letter does not constitute a good faith effort in seeking tribal consultation.

The significance of the project extends well beyond the trail itself. The Fort Bragg trail project is intended to jump-start the effort to rezone the largest industrial installation, the former Georgia-Pacific lumber mill site, to residential, commercial and industrial use. The City’s Master Plan states that “large portions” of the Mill Site “have not been surveyed,” and “there is a high potential for the further discovery of cultural resources.” Notably, the GP Mill site is owned by the far right-wing oil and paper product magnates, the Koch Brothers, whose combined wealth exceeds $40 billion.

Representatives of Sherwood Valley Rancheria, including Talisha Melluish, have only in the last few months been able to enter into consultations with Fort Bragg and CalTrans officials about the project. Those agencies have developed a few options that would somewhat reduce the amount of disruption to the Pomo cultural sites. Melluish states that while she will continue to negotiate in an effort to minimize the disruption of her people's sacred sites, she would strongly prefer that the city abandon the project altogether.

“At a meeting earlier this year, one of our tribal members made a great point,” Talisha Melluish says. “He said that, essentially, they're bringing this trail into our backyard. And does anybody want the city they live in to bring a trail into their backyard?”

The AVA will feature a more detailed story on the Northern Pomo's cultural history in the GP Mill area and the Fort Bragg Trail Project in coming weeks.

One Comment

  1. Thad Van Bueren October 2, 2012

    I know your paper prides itself on muckraking, but the absence of any fact checking is evident in the first paragraph of this article–which is all that I can access. Wouldn’t it have been a good idea to contact Caltrans and the City of Fort Bragg to get the other side of the story? If you’d done any of that common sense research you would know that all tribes in Mendocino County were consulted many times since serious planning of this project began in 2009. This project will provide access to a coastline that has been private property for 150 years, doing so in a way that maximizes protection of cultural sites and restores the natural setting.

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