A Malibu tribal foundation and others Tuesday appealed a recent court ruling that the California condor doesn’t qualify as a traditional Native American cultural property under federal law.
A federal judge based in Santa Ana concluded in December that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not violate the National Historic Preservation Act when it approved a large-scale residential project on what appellants allege is thousands of acres of critical habitat for the California condor.
“The condor is a critical part of the Chumash peoples’ religious and spiritual practices,” said Mati Waiya, a Chumash ceremonial elder and executive director of the Malibu-based Wishtoyo Foundation.
“Destruction of its remaining habitat will harm our connection with our ancestors. The service’s decision to ignore our concerns and approve this outdated development is heartbreaking and illegal.”
The appeal comes as part of a long-running legal battle in which the Center for Biological Diversity has fought to stop the Tejon Ranch Co. from building three major housing developments on its 270,000-acre property straddling southern Kern and northern Los Angeles counties.
Barry Zoeller, senior vice president of corporate communications and investor relations for Tejon Ranch Co., said in a statement that the Center for Biological Diversity’s actions over the years “consist of repeated frivolous attacks on Tejon Ranch that are not supported by the facts, and for which there should be consequences beyond them suffering multiple defeats in court.”
Zoeller alleged that the center’s intent “is to deny Californians an opportunity to own a home of their own, which disproportionally affects people and families of color. Tejon Ranch Co. believes it is equally our responsibility to vigorously defend all these legally approved permits and legislative approvals through the end of the judicial process.”
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Historic Preservation Act requires federal decision-makers to thoroughly evaluate proposed actions’ impacts on traditional cultural properties. The wildlife service claimed the act doesn’t apply to wild animals like the condor, despite the bird’s known significance to tribal groups, according to the center.
“The link between our people and condors has been broken by decades of no access to our land and the condor’s land on Tejon Ranch, and by the threat of extinction,” said Delia “Dee” Dominguez, chairperson of the Tinoqui-Chalola Council of Kitanemuk and Yowlumne Tejon Indians.
“The destruction of the condor is a continued destruction and maligning of the people. We must restore the link between people, ceremonial places and condors, but the government’s failure to consider the condor’s religious and cultural significance makes this very difficult.”
The Center for Biological Diversity and tribal groups sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in April 2019 for allegedly authorizing Tejon’s project without considering how it would harm the condor as a sacred cultural resource for Native Americans. In December, a Santa Ana federal judge sided with the wildlife agency.
The center’s challenge to the permit arises from a lawsuit filed by Tejon against the federal government in 1997, where Tejon sought to halt condor recovery efforts near the ranch in connection with its development plans and ultimately prevailed.
The Center for Biological Diversity “is continuing with its orchestrated campaign to prevent development of much-needed housing in California by appealing the federal court’s clear and decisive ruling in their original lawsuit challenging a federal permit issued during the Obama-Biden administration,” Zoeller alleged.
“In that case, CBD waited until the last moment of a six-year window to file the claim. They were forced to amend their pleadings multiple times just to maintain the suit, and then suffered a summary judgment verdict on their baseless claims without even need for a hearing. The court’s summary judgment ruling described CBD claims as `misleading,’ that `belies the undisputable facts in the administrative record’ and are `unsupported in the record.”’
“The same could be said for this latest press release from the Center for Biological Diversity,” Zoeller said.