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Tribal bloc alters stand on toll road

A Juaneno faction OKs a deal with the tollway operator. Leader says 'the handwriting was on the wall.'

June 14, 2008|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

A faction of a Native American tribe against a proposed toll road through south Orange County has agreed to drop its opposition -- and stands to make $350,000 because of it.

David Belardes, who heads one of four Juaneno groups, said he signed a letter of intent with the Transportation Corridor Agencies by which the toll road operator would help pay for a tribal museum and genealogy studies to further the tribe's efforts to gain federal recognition.

In return, the Belardes' group requested that the state's Native American Heritage Commission dismiss the commission's lawsuit against the TCA seeking to halt the toll road through San Onofre State Beach.

The state attorney general filed the suit on behalf of the commission to prevent the tollway from destroying Panhe, the Juanenos' ancestral home near San Mateo Creek.

The TCA is in similar negotiations with the other three Juaneno factions. If successful, the deals could strike a serious blow to efforts to stop the toll road.

"It was a tough decision," Belardes said. "But we felt the handwriting was on the wall."

Belardes, a prominent leader known statewide among Native Americans, was criticized by fellow Juanenos for his decision. But he justified his actions, saying that no matter where "you build that road, you're going to impact Native American sites."

"This doesn't mean I support development. But the agreement helps get us in the process and helps us gain access to land to continue our ceremonies and reburials," he said.

What effect the proposed agreement will have on the toll road operator's overall chances to build the turnpike is uncertain. But toll road opponents acknowledged the threat of losing such a powerful ally as the Juanenos would be a serious blow.

Joe Ocampo, who heads one of the factions, said his group was still against the toll road.

"Does it weaken the opposition? The TCA would like to convey the thought that it is weakening," Ocampo said. "But I still think we have the strongest support against the toll road."

Other toll road opponents took exception to the accord, saying it was similar to the TCA's $100-million offer to help state parks that it made before a California Coastal Commission hearing at which the toll road was vetoed.

That decision has been appealed to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

"The TCA has been trying to buy compliance since September," said Robert Garcia, executive director for the City Project in Los Angeles, which is helping the Juanenos still opposed to the road.

"If you tell me $350,000 is for Native Americans, why do they value Native American rights so cheaply?" he said. "The TCA has spent more money studying pocket mice than on Native Americans."

Last year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs informed Juaneno leaders that their 25-year quest to gain federal recognition as a tribe was coming up short. They failed to meet four of seven criteria required for federal acknowledgment, bureau officials said.

And, instead of a unified effort, one petition to the bureau seeking recognition was followed by a second and then a third from separate factions, while a fourth faction emerged in protest.

Larry Myers, the state heritage commission's executive secretary, said the panel received a letter last month from a law firm representing Belardes' group.

In part, the letter stated that after 18 months of negotiations, "this understanding with the TCA provides a safeguard to protect sacred sites to the best ability of the tribe."

According to the letter, the TCA recognizes the potential damage the proposed road may cause and is addressing it. "Further prosecution of the lawsuit is no longer necessary," the letter states.

The commission met recently in closed session but did not take any action regarding the lawsuit, said William Mungary of Bakersfield, commission chairman.

Before the meeting, two of the Juaneno factions which still oppose the toll road, along with dozens of other Native Americans, urged the commission to keep the lawsuit alive.

"No one on the commission has suggested that it be put on the agenda for a vote and no action was taken," Mungary said.

TCA officials said the accord with the Belardes group has not been approved by the TCA's board.

It is part of the agency's mitigation process to build a 16-mile turnpike from Oso Parkway in south Orange County to Interstate 5 near Basilone Road.

Steve Conklin, a TCA consultant, said the intent of the money was to fund ethnographic studies and other documents the Belardes group needs for the BIA. "It's part of the mitigation process," he said.

Similar consultation with the Juanenos occurred when the first leg of the 241 tollway in northern Orange County was built, he said.

According to the proposed agreement, the TCA would help pay for museum staff and for cultural resource programs.

In addition, the TCA may provide five acres of land to each of the four groups for reburials, planting, ceremonies and other cultural activities.

The TCA would hire a tribal monitor to oversee excavations before construction begins and hire a member of the Belardes group for similar monitoring during construction if significant prehistoric cultural resources are unearthed.

The accord calls for the Belardes group to receive $25,000 at the signing of the intent letter, and $50,000 in 90 days when the board approves the agreement.

The remainder of the money would come from construction financing for the highway.

Rebecca Robles, a Juaneno from San Clemente who helped found a coalition to save Panhe, was disappointed but reluctant to criticize Belardes publicly.

"It's not over yet," she said. "We just have to continue to build support to protect our sacred site."

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david.reyes@latimes.com

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