Mati Waiya | Project Threatens Condors, Culture

SCV Voices: Guest Commentary
SCV Voices: Guest Commentary

For decades, we’ve fought to save California condors from extinction. After 40 years of protection, these magnificent birds are slowly recovering. But they remain among the world’s most imperiled animals.

While condors are iconic to all Californians, they’re especially important to native people. Condors appear in cave paintings, traditional stories, oral histories, and both ancient and contemporary Native California ceremonies and regalia. For millennia, they’ve been integral to the cultures and religions of indigenous peoples, including the Chumash.

We have a sacred responsibility to protect our condor relatives. That’s why Chumash people have actively taken part in both bringing the last 22 California condors into the captive breeding program and in holding ceremonies for the release of condors as the program became successful.

Yet now condors may lose one of their most important remaining habitats because the federal government has approved a massive new Kern County development in the heart of condor country, not far from Santa Clarita.

Approval of this development, Tejon Mountain Village, by federal wildlife officials flies in the face of our native cultural practices and the condor’s needs.

The proposed luxury resort would destroy 28,500 acres of pristine habitat crucial for the condors’ recovery. The proposed buildout includes two golf courses, an equestrian center, up to 3,450 residences and 750 high-end hotel rooms.

In April, Wishtoyo Foundation joined indigenous and conservation groups in suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for authorizing the plan. The service approved the plan some years ago, but with construction now imminent, we had to act. 

Despite its legal obligation under the National Historic Preservation Act, the service didn’t adequately consult native people on the religious and cultural significance of condors. We demand to be heard on Tejon Mountain Village’s threat to these birds and our culture.

For more than 10,000 years, Chumash people lived, practiced our religion, and buried our families in the present Tejon Ranch area. The Kitanemuk and Yowlumne Tejon Indians also lived in the Tehachapi Mountains and the Antelope Valley. 

Our cultures have not only evolved alongside condors, but also these birds play a central role in our lifeways – from cleansing the land from the ugliness of man to carrying our spirits to the afterlife when we die. As native peoples, we cannot afford to let the California condor be destroyed.

We feel deeply connected to Tejon Ranch’s wildlands and wildlife. This is a natural treasure trove of biodiversity, home to up to 20 endangered species. Destruction of native species and habitat perpetuates the erasure of native people and the suppression of our cultural practices and traditional knowledge. That loss is deeply significant to the Chumash and other native people.

But federal officials ignored all that. California condors are listed as critically endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and California law designates them as “fully protected.” Despite these distinctions, the service issued the first-ever “incidental take” permit for the birds, giving Mountain Village developers permission to harm them.

Not only will the development habituate the birds to human activities, it will also destroy or damage thousands of acres of habitat — land the service already designated as critical. Eight of the country’s most prominent California condor experts have denounced the development.

Condors’ near-extinction has already made it difficult for our tribal practitioners to collect feathers for condor dances and other sacred rites that our communities have shared for thousands of years — rituals that are essential to us.

Our tribe is connected to the natural world. Our elders teach us about our responsibility to protect the natural resources we depend on and the importance of sustainability. Allowing this development to destroy critical condor habitat and permitting “incidental take” of these endangered birds is a direct threat to the continuance of our culture.

Under the National Historic Preservation Act, condors and their habitat in the proposed development area are traditional historic cultural properties, and the service must protect them.

These birds have been sacred to our tribes for thousands of years. Yet the government broke the law by shutting native people out of the decision about development on condor land. 

Construction may begin any day, but it’s not too late. The service must revoke approval and permits for the development — for condors, for native people and for all Californians.

Mati Waiya is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation and a member of the Center for Biological Diversity’s board of directors.

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