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Mendocino County tribes sue over Willits bypass, alleging damage to tribal sites

The Willits bypass, shown Monday, Dec. 1, 2014. (KENT PORTER/ PD)

GLENDA ANDERSON, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Two Mendocino County tribes are suing state and federal highway authorities, alleging they allowed cultural and archaeological sites to be damaged or destroyed during construction of the Highway 101 bypass in Willits.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, seeks a halt to work on the mostly complete $300 million, 5.9-mile bypass until an archaeological oversight plan that is satisfactory to the tribes can be hammered out. It also seeks attorney fees and unspecified financial damages for the alleged loss of historic, cultural and sacred sites during construction of the bypass.

“They’re grading and destroying cultural sites,” said Priscilla Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians. “We want them to stop.”

If granted, an injunction would stop work on a project that is more than 80 percent complete and on which 95 percent of soil-disturbing jobs are done, according to Caltrans.

Hunter said the tribes aim to limit potential damage to cultural sites that could later be disturbed by the project.

The lawsuit, filed by the Coyote Valley and Round Valley Indian tribes, claims Caltrans, the U.S. Department of Transportation and their top officials failed to properly identify and protect tribal ancestral and archaeological sites before and during construction. In doing so, Caltrans violated multiple laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act and the Administrative Procedure Act, the suit claims.

Caltrans officials say the lawsuit is rife with misinformation.

“Caltrans has complied with state and federal laws during the construction of the Willits bypass,” officials said in a written response to the lawsuit.

Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie also was dismissive of an allegation in a related press release claiming that Caltrans had bulldozed an archaeological site in the middle of the night in 2013.

“I have no idea what they’re talking about,” he said.

The project has been subject to a number of wild rumors, Frisbie noted. Among those, he said, were claims that a burial ground was disturbed, unearthing human bones. No human bones have been found anywhere in the construction zone, he said.

Caltrans admits, however, that it did mistakenly drill into a cultural site in 2013 due to a faulty site map drafted by the agency. The error unearthed bits of charcoal and seeds, an official with the Sherwood Band of Pomo Indians reported at the time. State officials in charge of such sites will not reveal what kind of artifacts were found or where they were discovered.

The Sherwood, Coyote Valley and Round Valley tribes all have archaeological monitors who work with Caltrans’ archaeologists. But they claim Caltrans limits their access to the sites.

“They wouldn’t even tell them when the work was going on,” said Phil Gregory, one of the tribes’ attorneys.

The Sherwood tribe has not joined the lawsuit, but it also has been critical of the cultural oversight process, he said.

Caltrans has been untrustworthy throughout the process of trying to establish a protocol for tribal oversight, Gregory said.

The bypass project has been the subject of wider controversy for years.

Some Willits residents favor the bypass, saying it will alleviate traffic jams on Highway 101 as it passes through town. Opponents say it’s bigger than necessary, environmentally damaging and that it will have a negative impact on downtown businesses.

Since construction began in 2013, there have been dozens of protests and multiple lawsuits aimed at halting the project or reducing its footprint in the Little Lake Valley, located on the outskirts of Willits. Most of the protests have focused on the destruction of the valley’s wetlands. Caltrans is allowed to destroy some but must create new ones as part of the project’s mitigation.

The project also has been hindered by Caltrans’ regulatory violations and the collapse of the framework for one of the viaducts on the bypass, which seriously injured three workers and resulted in a total of $165,000 in fines against the agency and two construction companies.

The structural work on the bypass is now mostly complete. Paving is scheduled to commence next year, and the new roadway is expected to be open to traffic at the end of 2016.

The lawsuit comes at a time when work on the bypass is ceasing for the winter.

“This is the perfect time for the court to shut it down,” Gregory said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.