Reporting from Pala, Calif. — On its way to the ocean, the San Luis Rey River runs through a hilly, brushy parcel of land known as Gregory Canyon.
With large stands of coastal oak and cottonwood trees and a population of rattlesnakes and even a few mountain lions, the canyon is tucked away in a sparsely populated part of northeast San Diego County, just south of California 76 and three miles east of Interstate 15.
Above the river, on a recent afternoon, an osprey was slowly circling. Overlooking the canyon is a mountain that local Native American tribes call Chokla, one of the homes, they say, of Takwic, a sacred figure who manifests as a person, a bird or a fireball.
Now the canyon is locked in a dispute that pits ancient beliefs against modern needs. The Pala band of Mission Indians is fighting in Takwic's name against a proposal to open an enormous landfill in the canyon.
The landfill would handle the estimated 1.1-million tons a year of trash from affluent north county. County officials in the 1980s put the canyon on a list of potential landfill sites.
The land is owned by a group of individual and institutional investors organized as Gregory Canyon Ltd., which over nearly two decades has spent more than $40 million on lawyers, land purchases, environmental reports and other planning.
The tribe owns the adjacent property, including Medicine Rock, a ritual site that stands three stories tall at the foot of Chokla. About two miles to the east is the Pala casino and hotel, which opened in 2001 and greets busloads of gamblers each day.
For two decades, the battle has been raging, with the proponents winning most of the legal skirmishes, both of the countywide ballot measures, and a showdown in Sacramento — as county landfills reach the bursting point and local trash continues to be shipped to Orange County and Arizona.
The plan calls for a 380-acre landfill surrounded by 1,330 acres of open space. The landfill would be undergirded by a multi-layer liner to prevent leaching.
The dispute may be in its final phases, and both sides are expressing confidence.
Pala tribal leaders are buoyed by the decision of the Army Corps of Engineers to make a comprehensive environmental review of the project, including its cultural effect. An Army Corps official visited Medicine Rock to study its proximity to the proposed landfill.
In a letter last month to the Army Corps, Pala Chairman Robert Smith noted that all 19 federally recognized tribes in Southern California oppose the landfill.
Some tribal elders say they have seen Takwic blazing through the sky at night looking for souls to gather. They believe that he will take revenge if the landfill is built.
"Takwic is going to come out of his resting place and wreak havoc on the world — that's the tribal perspective," said Shasta Gaughen, the tribal historic preservation officer. "This is a sacred place."
Nancy Chase, spokeswoman and lobbyist for Gregory Canyon Ltd., said that ethnohistories do document the belief that Takwic has visited the mountain, but they say his gaze was east, not west toward the canyon. If he were to look east, Chase said, he would see the casino and hotel.
"He'd be appalled," she said.
Jim Simmons, project manager for Gregory Canyon Ltd., said concern about Takwic has not been a prime part of lawsuits filed in the last decade by the tribe and environmental allies. "Now all of a sudden we're violating their culture," he said.
Talk like that infuriates the tribe. It is "highly presumptuous," Gaughen said, "for any non-tribal person to assume that they can define what is and is not considered sacred."
Tribal leaders say they believe current events are on their side. President Obama has signed the Native American Apology Resolution, vowing to seek reconciliation with the tribes. And they think the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico will make governments less willing to take environmental risks.
"We're in the best position we've been in in years," said Lenore Lamb, the tribe's director of environmental programs.
The canyon is just a few miles from an earthquake fault and has two underground aqueducts that bring water to San Diego County. One of the issues yet to be decided is whether the landfill would require relocating the aqueducts.
Simmons said the landfill is only planned for 30 years, after which it will be covered and restored to its natural state. "The Indians have been here for 600 years," he said. "This is a blip in time."
The tribe, meanwhile, has tried to sway public opinion with full-page newspaper advertisements showing mounds of old tires surrounding a Christian church. That's how the tribes feel about the landfill, Lamb said.
The project needs permits from the Board of Supervisors, the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Army Corps of Engineers. There will be public hearings — which promise to be heated.
But on a warm summer day, hearings and dueling environmental reports seem a world away from Gregory Canyon.
Wild grapes are ripening, poison oak is glistening in the sun, and a few fishermen have hopped the wire fence and ignored the "No Trespassing" signs.
The osprey spots a fish in the river and swoops down to catch dinner in its talons.