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.
"We are working with them to address this," he said.
It's not unusual for large construction projects to unearth historical sites and artifacts.
"It happens all the time," Milhans said.
One of the more recent significant finds was an African burial site in Manhattan that was unearthed in 1991, he said.
"It changed what we know about slavery," Milhans said. The site is now a national monument.
Tribes and Caltrans knew there were multiple cultural sites in the Little Lake Valley when they began preparing for the bypass project.
Caltrans checked maps of known sites and evaluated soil samples throughout the construction area.
Soil samples taken in 2011 revealed there were four additional sites, but the sites were never added to maps. Instead, Caltrans relied on descriptions of the locations.
Fitzgerral said the tribe asked Caltrans in May to map the new cultural sites because they were concerned about the accuracy of the descriptions.
Frisbie said Caltrans was working on mapping the sites when work began in the area. The work included installing 85-foot-long "wick" drains into the ground about every five feet.
No artifacts were unearthed and the mistake wasn't discovered until September, when a review of the site descriptions revealed errors, Frisbie said.
It remains unclear how the error occurred, he said.