Gabrielino Band of Mission Indians denounces nature center

Members of the Gabrielino Band of Mission Indians gathered at the Whittier Narrows wildlife sanctuary on Thursday to denounce plans to build a $22-million discovery center on a site they regard as ancestral lands.

During a blessing ceremony held in a glade of century-old sycamores, tribal spiritual leader Ernest Perez Salas Tautimies said, "This is our last frontier close to home. We want to keep it just the way it is so that we never forget the lessons hidden under every leaf and rock."

The tribe's announcement added another layer of controversy to the proposed 14,000-square-foot San Gabriel River Discovery Center, which would be equipped with interactive exhibits, including a 7,000-square-foot model of the San Gabriel River featuring flowing water.

Belinda Faustinos, interim executive director of the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority, said her agency, "has respect for all Native Americans and we are committed to working collaboratively with all tribes who call the San Gabriel home."

She said an investigation by the California Native Heritage Commission had determined that "Native American cultural resources were not identified within one half-mile" of the project, which would replace an existing small nature center with a structure housing an auditorium, administrative offices and a parking lot for more than 100 vehicles.

Once built, she added, the discovery center and its exhibits would connect "our youth to the land in which we live and to the San Gabriel River watershed, a place of many valuable resources worth protecting."

Opponents led by the grassroots group Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area fear the center would destroy a swath of critical habitat for the endangered Bell's vireo. They also strongly disagree with project supporters who suggest that the children of working-class minority families can learn more about nature from models and replicas than from nature itself.

"It's one thing for a child to push a button and see a picture of nature," said Lucy Pedregon, a media aide for the Hacienda-La Puente Unified School District. "But there is nothing like walking along a trail here, seeing, smelling, hearing and touching nature all around you."

The proposal was launched in 2001 as a modest interpretive center where visitors could learn about conservation and the activities of agencies that have been trying to upgrade and protect the area's watershed. Since then, it has nearly tripled in size, and several environmental groups have either broken public ties with its stakeholders' committee or chosen to remain neutral.

Faustinos, who is also executive officer of the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, a state agency dedicated to preserving open space and habitat in Los Angeles and Orange counties, plans to retire in May.

Faustinos has said her decision to step down from the position was not related to a state Department of Finance audit of the conservancy's use of funding under Proposition 40 and 50 as of June 30, 2008.

The audit concluded that the conservancy and its joint powers entity, the Watershed Conservation Authority, had not exercised adequate fiduciary oversight of bond funds.

The audit is expected to figure in the conservancy's ongoing effort to win a $7-million state grant needed to begin construction on the 412-acre wetlands area framed by two freeways and a string of industrial parks in eastern Los Angeles County.

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