By Frank Hartzell
WESTPORT, Calif. 5/22/21 — One of the last spots on the Mendocino Coast where people still regularly drive their cars on the beach may become a brand new kind of sanctuary where Native cultural and burial areas are a priority along with the environment.
A bill sponsored by Assmb. Jim Wood (D-Santa Rosa) and State Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), would transfer more than a mile of ocean front land west of SR-1, now owned and maintained by Caltrans, to a nonprofit run by three Mendocino County tribes: the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians, the Round Valley Indian Tribes, and the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians.
“This is sacred land to these three tribes,” said McGuire “California Native American tribes have been the caretakers of the Golden State for centuries. They’ve protected our coastlines, our forests and our wildlife, and they want to take the lead in efforts to better restore those cultural landmarks that are currently on that stretch of California coastline.”
The long history of driving personal cars and four wheeling on Blues Beach, about 14 miles north of Fort Bragg, would likely come to an end if the bill passes and the transfer to the still unformed non-profit is successful. The bill has surprised neighbors, who say they had not heard about it while it was in the works and compelled one Westport Municipal Advisory Council member to gather 210 signatures in opposition.
Senate Bill 231 would create a process whereby the scenic 172 acre oceanfront parcel — which stretches from Blues Beach to just past a popular vista point between Fort Bragg and Westport — would be given to an as yet unformed nonprofit run by three Mendocino County tribes. The hopes are for the process to begin this year, with no timetable put forward yet on how long it might take after that.
The move would create a significant change for the two popular public access areas and represent the transfer out of public ownership of one of the largest and most spectacular chunks of oceanfront land in recent memory. It would be a major victory for tribal interests to regain control of land with sacred sites and a long history of use by Native peoples.
“Like other areas all over, the Native people are the ones who know how to cultivate the land without destroying it. That’s part of doing this. We can protect it better than the state can. We know how to do that based on what our ancestors did,” said Melanie Rafanan, chair of the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians in an interview.
“They collected a lot of the things that they valued there. There were many resources on the site, from grasses and the native plants that are there to the ocean resources. They used all that for different types of things including food and medicine,” she said.
The bill would allow transfer of the lands currently held by the state government to a tribal 501c3 nonprofit, excluding the likes of the Mendocino Land Trust, Nature Conservancy or other environmental and preservation groups from being selected to manage the land. The bill mandates that the tribal nonprofit keep the land intact and managed for environmental preservation and continue to provide public access, although some areas could be closed off to protect burial grounds.
McGuire said the land would never be used for commercial development, nor would it be legal for the tribes to charge for public access. The senator added that it is guaranteed that public access would remain from sunrise to sunset after the deal goes through.
“The state of California is in the business of providing public access to our shorelines, not taking it away,” said McGuire.
“[The tribes] are direct descendants of the Coast and Northern Pomo people who inhabited this coastal area. The property contains known village sites, human remains, cultural resources, and archeological sites,” a State Senate analysis of the bill states.
Rafanan said the site had a wide variety of historical uses from basket making to all the rich foraging resources on the property. She noted one of the reasons for acquiring and managing the property is to teach the next generations traditional ways of foraging and gathering without damaging the resource.
The property is located below towering bluffs on the south approach to Blues Beach on Highway 1 between milepost 73.88 and 75.43. The exact road boundaries are difficult to determine because the real estate parcels owned by Caltrans don’t match up to the mile markers used in the text of the bill. The real estate parcels include the highway itself and its immediate right of way, which are not to be conveyed. It’s unclear how the parcel splits will happen and exactly where the northern boundary of the property to change hands will be. The bill requires that the Native nonprofit:
“Allow public access to the Blues Beach property…to maintain the property as a natural habitat but may restrict public access to any portion of the property that contains a Native American burial ground.”
The burial ground or burial grounds are not identified in the proposal. Locations of burial grounds are often kept secret, as they are sometimes the targets of vandalism. Westport archeologist Thad Van Bueren would not disclose the location of any burial grounds on the property, saying that is protected information.
Property includes Blues Beach and several smaller, pristine beaches
The parcel starts on the north end at Blues Beach (although the exact spot is unclear) and from that heavily used public access point it quickly becomes pristine and almost entirely unused coastline (although open to the public it’s hard to get to). It continues for 1.5 miles past vistas that include rarely explored tidepool areas, rocky peninsulas, a vertical rock that looks like a Egyptian obelisk and several small beaches only accessible by dedicated hikers. A unique pine forest inhabits the area just north of a vista point pullout. The acquisition would include the vista point and its broad parking lot and continues just past that. The vista point parking lot is often used as a rest area by trucks, campers, groups of vehicles and construction workers.
Van Bueren said in an interview the property was inhabited for millennia by the Coast Yuki Indians, although he says they called themselves the “Epus.” “Yuki is the name given to them by their enemies, the Wintu [Yuki meaning enemy in that language] but Yuki is also the name everybody knows them by,” he said. He said the property was a focal point for many tribes who came there to trade with the Coastal Yuki or Epus. He said the richness of the marine resources at the property now up for transfer was what made the property such a great place for Native people to live and trade from prior to white settlement. A rugged but short hike reveals that richness today, with tidepools, mussel beds, peninsulas and channels full of life to rival any spot on the coast other than the heavily used MacKerricher state park. It’s a secret spot for many fisherpersons and foragers.
Plan leads to dueling petitions
SB 231 has divided the Westport Municipal Advisory Council (MAC), whose area the project falls under. It has mystified some neighbors, many of whom had not heard of the proposal while it wound its way through the California Legislature.
Sally Ottoson, owner of Pacific Star Winery, which is located just to the south of the area to be transferred, is concerned that the project is being moved too quickly through the legislature.
“I just heard about this. Other neighbors up here hadn’t heard about it. We have a lot of questions,” Ottoson said.
McGuire said he had been to several meetings of the Westport MAC and is willing to take individual meetings with any community member who has questions about the issue. He said it was 100 percent guaranteed that no hotel, casino or other commercial development would ever happen on the property. He says that would violate California law and the deal. He said additional language will be included to emphasize that commercial development will never be allowed on the property.
Gary Quinton, who is a member of the Westport MAC, whose service area includes the project, said Sen. McGuire told the MAC that SB 231 should be on Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk in August or September. Quinton has gathered signatures of people visiting the beach opposing the transfer to the tribes. He has gathered 210 signatures in opposition to the transfer.
Van Bueren, the archeologist, has gathered more than 30 signatures to a rival petition posted at the Westport Store. He says the petition in favor of the transfer includes more Westport local people than the one circulated by Quinton.
“Why does there seem to be an urgency goal to ‘fast-track’ SB-231? Why not obtain broad public input, debate and a more deliberative process?” said Quinton, who lives across the highway and up the hill from the property.
Quinton serves on several boards in the Westport area and says neither he, nor anyone else he knows in the area was aware the multi year process of transferring this land from state ownership to tribal ownership was underway. McGuire said the bill was introduced in January and word was out within a month.
Quinton has compiled a list of 19 questions he has been trying to get answers to about the proposal.
“What do the people of California who purchased and now own this property gain by this proposal?” Quinton asks at the top of his list of questions.
One of the biggest issues is the impact on Blues Beach. The beach is popular among people who drive and 4-wheel on the beach — it’s about the only place in the area where that is tolerated. Blues is favored by large family groups largely from inland areas. The beach, an anomaly for being managed by a state entity other than California State Parks, is packed on holidays, often with crowds from inland who come regularly.
It was that popular (but apparently technically illegal) driving on the beach that got the tribes involved starting back in 2011.
“According to the tribes, in 2011, they became aware that the Blues Beach property was being severely impacted by vehicles, including a highly sacred site that contains tribal ancestors and artifacts. The tribes joined together to begin discussions with Caltrans on protective measures for the historical sites on the property,” the State Senate analysis document states. McGuire said the process got into gear in 2019 when the tribes formed a working group to see how the property could be better protected.
Rafanan says driving on Blues Beach would likely stop under tribal ownership. She said it’s the only change in public access currently being considered.
“The only thing that we talked about changing and we foresee is making it so that there will be no more driving down to the beach. So public access that is there now is otherwise going to remain the same.”
When asked about the driving on the beach, McGuire said he is listening to the community and believes in collaboration and compromise. He said overnight camping and fireworks were among the activities that would have to stop, along with the dumping of garbage. Blues Beach usually appears clean but the roadside pull off there is sometimes used for dumping, as are many of the roadside pullouts.
“Some people say ‘this is the last free beach where we can do whatever the hell we want to do,’ which is not an attitude that I favor,’” said Van Bueren.
There are no signs that prohibit cars from driving on the beach and it’s easy to drive down well beaten tire tracks in several places. People who drove personal cars and SUV’s down the beach have had to rescued by tow trucks in the past.
Van Bueren said it has been illegal to drive on that beach or any other in Mendocino county since the 1980s but there has been no enforcement. It’s now widely assumed, and publicized on the internet that driving on the beach is legal. He said Caltrans has offered Blues Beach to California State Parks, which owns most of the beaches in the county but State Parks is already stretched too thin. There are a half dozen other smaller beaches included in the property to be transferred, but none of these have any easy public access as does Blues Beach.
Van Bueren said the mouth of the stream, native birds, seals and the rest of the natural environment are being degraded by the daily driving of cars on the beach.
“It’s illegal to drive on the beach but people do it everyday there. Caltrans has done nothing to address the situation. It is also illegal to camp at Blues Beach and people do it all the time. It’s also illegal to light fireworks on the beach and people do that often too. We just had a fire in March that was caused by the use of illegal fireworks,” Van Bueren said.
Quinton wonders why the bill cuts out ownership by experienced land owning entities like the Mendocino Land Trust or the Nature Conservancy and puts the property into the hands of an as yet unformed entity.
“None of the well-known land trust entities have even been notified of SB 231 or solicited for any input to SB 231. Why? Is there an unproven assumption that there is no better qualified custodian of the property than the proposed [Native nonprofit] future entity?” Quinton asked on his list of questions he sent by email
Attorney Robert Finnell, who lives in the Bay Area and has a home in Westport attended the recent virtual MAC meeting where McGuire appeared, by Zoom.
“It would seem that if preservation and caretaking is paramount then there is no good reason why the proposed 501(c)(3) could not take on those responsibilities as a charity on its own,” Finnell said by email.
Finnell worries that if the land title is transferred away from state ownership it would be very costly to get it back if the plan didn’t work out. “Why is land title transfer necessary? Another way to look at it could be that there is a period of time, say ‘up to five or ten years’ for a trial performance period by the charity, and then only consider land title transfer after excellent work performance is found and documented by the evidence,” Finnell said in an email interview.
Rafanan said the state was intent on transferring the land. “From all the meetings that I’ve attended. They want to be able to be free of it,” Rafanan said.
Ottoson has wanted to see the de facto rest area with a large parking lot that is now part of the site made into a full fledged rest area like the ones Caltrans operates elsewhere in the state. There are currently no restrooms at the site and no public restrooms between Fort Bragg and Westport. The property is often marred by the sight of toilet paper and other signs that lack of a bathroom isn’t stopping visitors. Her business often becomes the “rest stop” for people traveling that road.
Rafanan said there are no plans to close the parking lot area if the plan moves forward.
“It’ll probably be improved upon a little bit. We’re looking at ways to keep the trash to a minimum. I was out there one day and it was pretty trashed. So we’re hoping to be able to do that through this nonprofit,” Rafanan said.
The bill requires the new entity to maintain the land and says it would revert back to Caltrans if not maintained. It also provides for state funding to help maintain the property, to be repaid by any income the tribal nonprofit derives from the property. It’s not clear how the nonprofit might make money with the property. McGuire said there could never be an entry fee and that the land is being transferred for zero dollars.
“It would be a net positive for the state of California because of the ongoing maintenance security costs associated with maintaining the land,” said McGuire.
Earlier, SB 231 got a unanimous 14-0 vote in a committee.
Quinton says Caltrans does an excellent job of responding to issues in the area and wonders how inland based tribes can handle the issues that regularly arise on the land. Seaside Beach, located at the northern end of the mouth of Ten Mile River, is currently managed by the Mendocino Land Trust, which holds cleanup days at the site. Roadside turnoffs have been subjected to the dumping of recreational vehicle homes, long term camping and garbage dumping.
Did the Blues Beach area have more traditional use by native peoples than Seaside Beach?
“I would say so, said Van Bueren
“It really attracted a lot of visitation from neighboring groups that came to trade for the abundant resources that were so prevalent on the property.” The official name of Blues Beach is Chadbourne Gulch Beach, which is how it appears on maps.
Rafanan said different areas were more important to different tribal families
“The gathering was done all up and down the Coast. Some areas were more heavily used by one group and other areas by another,” she said.
Van Bueren said the arrangement would be similar to the one to the Westport Village Society, which preserved the Westport Headlands with deed restrictions similar to those proposed by the bill for the Native nonprofit.
All three tribes include descendants of the original people who lived on the site, Van Bueren said. Those people lived up the nearby hills during the winter, but did not migrate far inland, as did many coastal Native groups.
Of course, most of the Mendocino Coast was once occupied by Native people since at least the end of the last Ice Age, most of whom suffered relocation or murder at the hands of settlers and soldiers.
The Coastal Yuki numbered about 750 prior to the arrival of the settlers but that number had fallen to 50 by 1864, Van Bueren said. A 1926 census found just 4 full blooded Coastal Yuki left, Van Bueren said.
Overall, the peoples called the Yuki suffered an equally awful decline. The Coastal Yuki were not part of any overall Yuki tribe.
According to a Wikipedia entry, Benjamin Madley wrote that “the Yuki suffered a cataclysmic population decline under United States rule. Between 1854 and 1864, settlement policies, murders, abductions, massacres, rape-induced venereal diseases, and willful neglect at Round Valley Reservation reduced them from perhaps 20,000 to several hundred.”
This article was originally published by The Mendocino Voice.