PALM SPRINGS — On a sacred hillock near the mouth of Andreas Canyon, ancestors of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians are said to have descended to Earth as bird people.
The hillock, like the legend, has survived through the ages and stands amid the quiet beauty of the rugged desert terrain. For centuries, the Indians have lived nearby, once in huts of arrowwood and mud and today in ranch-style homes.
For years, tourists, nature lovers and hikers have visited the palm oases and rocky canyon streams near the sacred spot, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But now land developers have leased 450 acres of Indian-owned land near the mouth of Andreas and Murray canyons for an exclusive 900-unit country club--including clubhouse, golf course and tennis courts. The plan is opposed by environmentalists and some residents.
"It is a very difficult project which raises every planning issue with the exception of hazardous waste," city planner Doug Evans said. "It also raises classic legal issues of Indian rights, allottee rights, lessee rights and the city's rights."
The Tribal Council of the Agua Caliente Indians, while supporting the rights of individual Indian landowners, requested three weeks ago that the project be scaled down to provide a buffer between the canyon and the west side of the project.
City officials indicate that they support the project but want to protect the canyons.
Jim Rothschild, vice president of Andreas Canyon Country Club Inc., said the Indians' request to cut back the project would diminish its posh image and risk its economic viability.
Palm Springs city planners have tried to find a compromise that will satisfy everyone, but some residents oppose any development.
A group called the Friends of the Indian Canyons was formed in hope of seeing much of the proposed development area turned into a tribal park.
The lease agreement signed in 1978 between eight Indian property owners and the developers provides for guaranteed annual rents totaling $2.8 million over the first 18 years for the 450 acres. After that, the rent will be $1,200 per acre, or about $540,000 per year, for the remainder of the 65-year lease.
After the fifth year, the Indian owners could also receive a percentage of the gross receipts exceeding the basic land rental amounts from the country club's bar, dining room, green fees and pro shop.
Mayor Frank Bogert said a tribal park would be nice but would require acquisition of the land at a cost of some $11 million.
With such high figures, Bogert doubts that the Friends of the Indian Canyons can raise the money for the land. And he supports the property owners' rights.
"I've got a stack of letters this high saying, 'Don't let them do this,' " Bogert said. "But how would you like it if you had land and we wouldn't let you develop it?"
Regardless, Tribal Council attorney Art Bunce doubted that the Tribal Council would condemn Indian land in order to acquire it for a park, since the council also supports the rights of individual Indian landowners.
But one of the landowners, who didn't want her name used, said she would have favored a tribal park if such a proposal had been made earlier.
Committed to Contracts
"They should have done this years ago rather than waiting until something else was already going on," she said. "I would have gone along with it and I think the other landowners would have too. But now we're committed to the contracts."
She said she heard "through the grapevine" of the Tribal Council's concerns about protecting the canyon lands.
"If they're that concerned I think they should have contacted us, got the landowners together and seen how we felt and explain what they want up there," she said.
Cecelia Hutchins, spokeswoman for Friends of the Indian Canyons, said more than 150,000 tourists visited the wilderness area last year.
"What sells Palm Springs is blue sky and open desert space. People aren't going to continue to come here if it looks like every other community in the U.S.," she said.