A six story, 100-room hotel proposed by the Trinidad Rancheria at their Cher-Ae Hieghts Casino has received a green-light from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). On March 6, the BIA issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) in their Environmental Analysis (EA) of the project, opening up a two-week public comment period on the ruling.
According to federal law, if the BIA is initiating, funding or approving a project (in this case, it is guaranteeing a loan), then it is considered a federal project and subject to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The BIA then gets to determine the level of study needed. Generally, if a federal action is expected to have “significant effects on the human environment”, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will be prepared. An EA is used to determine if the effects are significant and if an EIS is needed. This Finding of No Significant Impact, if upheld, would mean that on a federal level the environmental review of this project would be finished.
The proposed hotel, meeting rooms, gym and pool have been opposed by many locals and conservation groups, including the NEC, since first unveiled in 2018. One of the most vocal groups in opposition to the project is the Humboldt Alliance for Responsible Planning, or HARP. HARP held 2 public meetings in 2018, when the first public comment period on the project was opened, generating over 60 public comments to the original EA.
There have been many concerns, including impact to migratory birds and viewshed impacts, but the two main concerns of letter writers were lack of a viable water source and wastewater discharge. Last August, the Coastal Commission voted to accept the BIA’s draft EA with one caveat: The Rancheria and the BIA needed to come back to the Coastal Commission with proof of a viable water source that will not adversely affect other coastal resources. The FONSI states that the Rancheria now has two wells and that it anticipates getting city water as well, but there is still a question of whether the wells will produce enough water, and there is no mention in the FONSI of water quality. It also says it will truck in water, if necessary, but Richard Johnson, a member of HARP, questions if that is really a “viable” water source.
Johnson, who is also on the City of Trinidad Planning Commission, says that the City is in the process of writing a new set of water policies. The City Planner and City Engineer are determining how much water can be pumped from Luffenholz Creek and what the capacity is of the City’s water processing plant. They are also trying to project into the future to anticipate growth and determine the City’s requirements to supply water within city limits, as well as to areas outside the city that already get water service. “There is a great deal of concern that, with climate change and other factors, the city may not want to give up any water right now,” says Johnson. “We all recognize that February was the third driest February on record.”
According to Johnson, tough decisions will have to be made regarding how water is allocated. Complicating this process is the fact that the Rancheria has invested in the Trinidad water system by helping to replace water mains and upgrade the water plant. “It’s complex,” says Johnson. The current plan is to have the water policy in place sometime in April. At that point, the Rancheria will have to go to the City of Trinidad to request water service.
Also at issue, says Bryce Kenny, attorney and founding member of HARP, is the fact that the hotel is part of a larger master development plan, but the individual aspects of the project are being evaluated separately. The development plan includes an expansion of the RV park, a convenience store and a highway interchange. When these projects are evaluated individually, the environmental impacts appear smaller, and less detrimental, than if they were evaluated as part of a single plan, which HARP argues they are. NEC has argued the same thing. In fact, the piece-mealing of the project was part of the original objection to the plan. NEC asserts that the hotel, convenience store, highway interchange and RV park are “connected actions”, and as Larry Glass, Executive Director, posits, “They (the tribe) are intentionally disconnecting these pieces of the project, because if they had to look at the whole picture, it doesn’t look as good for them.”
By the time you are reading this, the BIA public comment period will be closed, but this process will be far from over. NEC was able to sign onto a comment letter with HARP and we will be waiting for a response from the BIA. There is also a possibility that the Coastal Commission will comment on the FONSI as well. The City of Trinidad will have to decide whether it can provide water to the hotel, which could happen as soon as April. Those wishing to know more or get involved in the process can contact HARP on their Facebook page, look for updates at humboldtalliance.org or reach out directly to HARP spokesman Ted Pease at firstname.lastname@example.org.