“We believe that DOI [Department of the Interior] is poised to violate the law and our rights to religious freedom and our cultural identities guaranteed by DOI’s own policies, the United States Constitution, and international declarations. We need your help.” --Chairman Anthony Pico, Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, in a letter to President Barack Obama
Part I in an ECM special report series on potential impacts of the Ocotilllo Wind Express project
By Miriam Raftery
March 23, 2012 (Ocotillo) – For months, Ocotillo residents and conservationists have been waging a David and Goliath battle seeking to stop Pattern Energy’s proposed Ocotillo Wind Express project. Now Kumeyaay, Cocopah,Quechan and other Native American tribes have banded together to oppose the massive project-- joining residents, desert conservation groups and outdoor enthusiasts who seek to protect resources from destruction—including hundreds of cultural and archaeological sites.
On March 28, the Imperial Valley Planning Commission will rule on whether to approve the controversial project, which would generate power for San Diego County. At the federal level, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior is expected to issue a final decision by May 1. A petition seeking to stop the project has been launched by Ocotillo residents: http://www.change.org/petitions/say-no- ... y-project#.
The project would place up 112 to 155 turbines each 450 feet tall on 12,500 acres of publicly owned Bureau of Land Management land. Turbines would be sited within half a mile of homes. Residents have voiced alarm over impacts on health, views, wildlife, and property values. The project would destroy not only desert terrain, but also archaeological and sacred Native American sites.
Speaking at a renewable energy conference March 16 at the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego, Viejas Chairman Anthony Pico voiced frustration and outrage at a fast-track process that he believes has violated numerous laws.
“A fast-track process favoring renewable energy projects without regard to all classes of environmental impacts will result in irreparable harm to federal public lands that are sacred to tribes,” Chairman Pico warned. He added that pressures from the highest levels of the federal government “has caused those engaged in the management of public lands to abandon all common sense, their responsibilities to tribes pursuant to the United State trust obligation, and the duties and responsibilities delegated to them under relevant law.”
“Non-native people put their history in books. Our ancestors put their history on the ground and in the rocks, in the geoglyphs and in the petroglyphs, in the places where we live,” Pico said. “Destruction of this record is irreparable and it takes part of our lives.” View a video of his full speech: http://vimeo.com/38796301
More than 400 archaeological sites and six burial sites have been documented on the project site thus far, as well as ceremonial sites, agave gathering sites, and more. An ancient spokes wheel geoglyph is listed on the National Register of Historic places. It is slated to be destroyed, along with additional geoglyphs and other areas dear to Native Americans’ hearts and spirits.
Chairman Pico detailed a chilling record of broken promises and exclusion of tribal voices by the federal government, which he said has ignored of laws and policies, trampling Native American rights. He expressed anguish that the BLM and the County of Imperial have failed to engage in meaningful consultation with tribes, despite laws that require such discussions.
A key document, the Archaeological Technical Report “was not provided to us until after the original draft Environmental Statement Report comment deadline,” Chairman Pico said, adding that the document remains incomplete six months later. “Among other things, it lacks the tribal concerns,” he noted.
Viejas has met with BLM officials and voiced repeated concerns. “We’ve been to Washington twice,” said Chairman Pico.
ECM has asked the BLM and the White House for comment. No response was received by press deadline.
On February 22, Chairman Pico sent a letter to President Barack Obama seeking his help after efforts to work with local, state and federal BLM offices failed. The letter urged the President to direct those charged with implementing his renewable energy development policy to “follow the letter and spirit of the law” and stated that “those implementing national policies on your behalf and in your name are doing so at great price to tribes, a price with which you may not even be aware.”
Viejas invited the President to visit the proposed project area and to “walk the land with us to see for yourself what sacred land looks like, lands that have been left the way the Creator made them and that should not be opened to industrial renewable development.”
The Viejas letter voiced opposition to Ocotillo Express and also Genesis Solar, a project on federal land that would destroy some of the most significant ancient geoglyphs in North America.
Speaking at the San Diego conference, Pico revealed that the Occotillo Express applicant, Pattern Energy, “ may have changed the project in an effort to avoid the required SB 18 consultation with the affected tribes. We even met with Pattern Energy,” he told the audience, adding that tribes told Pattern “that there is no mitigation that could compensate for its impacts to this cultural place,” which is still used by tribes in ceremonies and as teaching places for tribal youths today.
But the project marches forward. On March 9, the final Environmental Impact Statement was published and a record of decision is expected to be signed by the Secretary of the Interior May 1. “Viejas has requested that the timeline be amended to accommodate the completion of among other things the archaeological report and inclusion of tribal values into the Environmental impact Statement,” he said.
On March 7, a BLM consultation meeting went forward despite a request from tribes to reschedule because they could not attend. “Just one week earlier…the BLM engaged in a document dump,” Pico revealed. Tribes were given a revised draft memorandum of agreement to review as well as a draft of what the BLM hopes to be a final archaeological report, as well as an unofficial draft of the final EIS that was circulated March 6.
Measures requested by tribes were not included on a list of mitigation in Memorandum of Agreement. “No reason was provided for their apparent rejection,” Pico said.
Moreover, a BLM letter dated January 27 included two maps of revised changes proposed by Pattern. “The BLM and Pattern continue to ignore the information provided to them by us,” Pico said, adding, “Tribes were given only 24 hours to comment on the modified plan.”
In addition, Viejas recently learned that the BLM approved a right-of-way for geotechnical testing in the same area by Pattern Energy “without notice of participation by tribes.”
No subsurface testing has been done in Ocotillo for either project, he said, yet the BLM concluded that no historic properties would be impacted.
“Viejas and almost all Southern California tribal governments have stated very clearly that we do not oppose alternative or renewable energy development so long as those projects are compliant with federal law and policy and so long as those projects are not at the expense of our cultural identity,” Pico said, drawing applause from the largely Native American crowd.
The tribes seeks denial of the Ocotillo Express wind project on several grounds.
First, the area is culturally and religiously significant for many tribes. “It is the house of our ancestors,” Pico said.
Second, he admonished, “The Bureau of Land Management has failed o consult with affected tribes with regards to all aspects of this project application process…as required by a number of laws and policies including the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the American Indian Religious Freedoms Act, the Religious Freedo Restoration Act and the Native American Brave and Repatriation Act, and the federal trust’s responsibility to tribes. This despite the fact that Native American monitors and elders have repeatedly provided information in support of both our history and contemporary connections to this place…”
Social and environmental justice concerns have not been address either, Pico said. “Further, there is a lack of transparency and equal access being promoted by the BLM. We are aware that the BLM has participated in a number of meetings with the California State Historic Preservation officer with Pattern Energy’s consultant,” he said, adding that tribal interests and key project aspects as well, but tribes were excluded from those meetings.
Another reason for the tribes’ opposition is that unlike many renewable energy sites, this one has numerous special land use designations. Those include five BLM areas of critical environmental concerns, five BLM wilderness areas, a national historic trail in Cleveland National Forest, a ceremonial palce on the National Historic Registrar, a resource conservation area and a wilderness project study area. The wind farm is also proposed adjacent to Anza Borrego Desert State Park, which contains cultural preserves.
The site is designated class L, or limited use under the California Desert Conservation Plan formed with help from tribes many years ago. “In many cases those records are now missing at the BLM…Any efforts to develop these lands will send an unfortunate message that long term planning efforts including the Desert Renewable Conservation Plan and tribal participation therein have little meaning,” Pico stated.
Viejas and other tribes consider the western side of Imperial Valley as a single cultural resource and questions why the federal government is failing to protect what the state government has deemed worthy of protection.
“The affected tribes are unified as we have never been before…We have joined together to protect this area,” Chairman Pico said. “The coming together of the Kumeyaay and the Colorado River tribes…is something that the elders have never seen before, or their parents and grandparents have never seen before.”
The tribes warn that the fast-track approval process will lead to negative media coverage and “controversial litigation” and that such fast-tracking without regard to all types of environmental impacts will cause “irreparable harm to federal public lands that are sacred to tribes.”
The White House and Secretary Salazar’s office at the Interior Department have been applying pressure on officials and bureaucrats to approve this and other controversial energy projects, Pico said numerous sources including some within federal agencies have indicated.
“The people applying these pressures have never stepped foot on these lands. They have never met with local people. They think that they are removed from the impacts of these decisions. We must show them that it isn’t so and apply our own counter pressure to protect this special place,” Chairman Pico implored. “ He added that “all of our concerns have been blatantly and repeatedly ignored and our meaningful participation obstructed by both the BLM and the applicant, Pattern Energy.”
The tribes opposing the Ocotillo wind project have successful sued to block other major projects that threatened to destroy tribal resources.
Genesis Solar near Blythe, California was a fast-track project that Pico says excluded tribes and was approved over strong objections. After construction began, artifacts were found and the project is now at risk because of “the abundant subsurface tribal cultural resource discoveries…The Ocotillo Express, designated a priority project by the BLM in 2011, has all the hallmarks of becoming the Genesis of wind farms,” Pico added.
The Quechan tribe took legal action to stop the Glamis gold mine and the Imperial Solar project. Colorado River Indian tribes were involved in blocking Genesis, while Viejas recently went to court to stop desecration of a burial ground and ceremonial site by Padre Dam Municipal Water District.
Congressman Bob Filner, speaking at the energy conference hosted by Sycuan at the U.S. Grant Hotel, also denounced the project. “I’ve stood with tribes and those who have a more intelligent approach to energy projects intruding on our environment and destroying sacred lands,” he said.
Experts retained by Viejas have called the Ocotillo wind project “the worst example that they have ever seen,” Pico revealed.
The powerful Viejas leader warned that tribes are prepared to sue to enforce their rights. “The Ocotillo area is of such great importance to us that the foundation for litigation has been set if it is necessary,” Chairman Pico concluded.