Tribes ask Congress to halt Willits bypass project

An organization of American Indian tribes is calling on Congress to halt work on the Willits bypass following a snafu that caused construction crews to install deep drains in an area believed to be part of a historic cultural site.

"We don't want it to happen again," said Mike Fitzgerral, chairman of the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians, which asked the National Congress of American Indians to adopt the resolution at a recent conference in Tulsa, Okla.

It's the latest controversy to arise since work on the bypass began early this year.

The tribes want federal funding for the project withheld until Caltrans can adequately address concerns over the potential for damage to cultural resources in the valley surrounding Willits. Thousands of American Indians once resided in the lush Little Lake Valley.

The extent of the damage caused by the bypass construction is unclear. Officials are prohibited from revealing the nature of historical discoveries. No artifacts were visible above ground at the site, said Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie.

The tribes' resolution has not yet been sent to members of Congress, Fitzgerral said. A spokesman for North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman said he cannot address the request to stop funding at this time.

But in a written statement issued Thursday, Huffman joined tribes and federal authorities in calling for an investigation into what led to the mistake and for renewed cultural resource consultations with the tribes and historic preservation officials.

State, federal and tribal officials have been working together since September on a plan to avoid any future damage to cultural sites.

But the Sherwood tribe and the National Congress of American Indians want a redo of the formal process typically required before a project begins. The process sets out steps that must be followed to prevent damage to cultural artifacts. The Washington, D.C.-based Advisory Council on Historic Preservation also would like to see the process re-opened, said spokesman Bruce Milhans.

Frisbie said his agency is studying its options.

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