Courtesy Sonoma Coast State Park/California Department of Parks and Recreation
The Sonoma coast, which the Kashia Pomo Band of Indians and other tribes access for ceremonial purposes, is difficult to reach without a place to park one's car. Parking may soon carry a fee.

‘Paying to Pray’ in Northern California: Potential Beach Access Fees Threaten Tribal Practices

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

A controversial California State Parks proposal may result in local tribes having to pay to access traditional sites along the coast in Sonoma County north of San Francisco, according to Reno Franklin, tribal chairman of the Kashia Pomo at Stewart’s Point Rancheria.

“The way it stands right now, if the proposal goes through without any tribal consultation, it will mean we will have to pay to pray at sites we have had free access to for all these years,” Chairman Franklin told ICTMN. “Five of the eight beaches slated for the new charges are within our aboriginal area. One of them is the center of our universe, and one of them has a burial.”

The charges would be for parking and other amenities (such as bathrooms), not actual beach use. But because the coastal highway is so narrow and there is virtually no place to park on it, that would in effect force people to pay to use a resource that under state law should be free.

The proposal has been the topic of heated debate since 2012. Facing a stubborn budget crisis, State Parks has desperately sought new revenue sources for its general fund in order to maintain an ailing system ever since budget cuts in 2011 resulted in the closing of 70 parks.

The proposed fees range from $3 an hour to $8 for the day. The proposal requires a permit to install automatic-pay parking fee collection self-pay devices—akin to meters—in an area that encompasses Sonoma Coast State Park, a 16-mile stretch of rugged coastline at the southern end of the proposed area, the traditional territory of the Kashia Band of Pomo. It overlaps with the aboriginal territory of the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria, a band of Coast Miwok peoples. It includes seven beaches that with a few exceptions have never charged fees. Farther north, one other beach in Salt Point State Park would be subject to the new fees.

The State Parks’ plan was originally proposed in 2012. The charging of fees for beach access is the jurisdiction of the California Coastal Commission (CCC), which alone has the authority to approve or deny those fees. The CCC’s job is to enforce the California Coastal Act, which exists largely to protect public access to beaches.

“Fees to park at beaches are basically about access,” said Sara Wan, former two-time chair of the Coastal Commission. “In Sonoma County in particular, parking and beach fees are one and the same.”

Moreover, little or no attention has been given to the effect such rules would have on Native peoples, Wan said.

“The Coastal Act is weak on Native American rights, and their protection really doesn’t exist,” Wan told ICTMN. “But the new fees would adversely impact low-income people and Native Americans.”

The 12 voting members of the CCC rely on the commission’s staff to advise them in their decision-making process. The staff compiled a 900-page report detailing its findings on the State Parks department’s beach fee proposal for an April 13 public hearing held in Santa Rosa. The report recommended that the CCC deny the permit for the State Parks’ plan, citing a bevy of concerns.

Kashia Pomo Tribal Chairman Reno Franklin speaking at California Coastal Commission hearing on April 13.

Among the concerns was the lack of Native American consultation. While the parks department claimed in its application to the CCC that “Native American consultation for the proposed project has failed to identify any previously recorded or identified tribal cultural resources within the project areas,” it cited no actual references to consultations. The staff report surmised that this was probably due to the fact that State Parks had only begun reaching out to the tribes on February 26, 2016.

“The only consultation State Parks performed was related to the California Environmental Quality Act to identify tribal cultural resources,” Franklin told ICTMN, adding that the department’s failure to identify any previously recorded or identified tribal cultural resources contradicts the tribe’s own knowledge. “Archeological evidence indicates Native American presence in the area at least 12,000 years, but we think it’s a lot longer than that.”

Franklin addressed the Coastal Commission at the 12-hour-long Santa Rosa hearing to reject what he called a “pay to pray” policy, reminding the audience and the commission only half in jest that “in 12,500 years living along the coast, the Kashia have never once charged anyone to access it.”

Even if in the worst-case scenario the CCC opts not to reject the parks department proposal, all it would take would be an agreement between the tribes and the department to grant an exception to the fees for tribal members. Such an exception exists, for example, with the Laytonville Cahto tribe in Mendocino, Sonoma’s neighboring county. Tribal members are exempt from paying State Park fees at coastal beaches under a memorandum of understanding signed years ago.

Aside from tribal concerns, the fees would harm low-income families overall, meeting attendees said. This makes the proposal “cruel, in that it would limit who would have access to the parks on the ocean,” said Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, in a statement read at the meeting by tribal vice chairwoman Lorelle Ross. This echoed the concerns of County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who pointed out that limiting coastal access to low-income families is a social justice issue.

Despite the recommendations in the staff report, the CCC failed to make a decision, postponing it to a future date. The State Parks department did not respond to ICTMN’s requests for comment.

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