The California Coastal Commission has made history with the appointment of Ryan Sundberg, Yurok, to its Board of Commissioners. Sundberg is the first Native American to ever be appointed to the 12-member commission in its 41-year history.
Sundberg’s position is one of six requiring that an appointee be an elected official. Formerly an insurance broker, he was elected in 2011 to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, where he currently represents the county’s fifth district. Sundberg also served 14 years on the tribal council of Trinidad Rancheria, his home community.
Sundberg’s appointment fits a pattern of pro-tribal sovereignty actions in recent years taken by the state. For example, in 2011 Governor Jerry Brown created Executive Order B-10-11, establishing the Governor’s Tribal Advisor Office. Then in 2014 the California State Assembly passed AB 52, a bill that amends the California Environmental Quality Act to require greater tribal consultation in development projects.
The new laws have had a measurably positive effect in California’s Indian country. Most recently, a massive beachfront resort was shot down by the Coastal Commission, partly due to the preponderance of tribal cultural resources on the property. In 2008 the Coastal Commission took tribal cultural resources seriously (along with other environmental concerns) when it denied a permit for a toll road that would have desecrated an Acjachemen sacred site in San Clemente.
But Sundberg doesn’t believe he was appointed specifically because he is Native, or to fulfill any mandate for Native American representation.
“I’m one of the longest serving on our Board of Supervisors, and the supervisors from all three counties I represent sent my name in. I don’t know that it was necessarily a ‘Native American’ appointment; I’m hoping it was on my merits. It may have something to do with it, and I’m happy to be the first and to represent the tribes and other constituents, but it was probably a combination of all of it,” Sundberg told ICMN.
Sundberg sees his role in the Coastal Commission as a way to help bring greater awareness about the place of tribal governments in the state system.
“A lot of people who don’t deal with tribes have absolutely no clue how it works. I’ve done workshops at different conferences where we talk about tribal relations and how to get along with tribes. I’ve had supervisors from other counties ask if tribes are like other countries. I tell them we’re more like another state, not another country,” he chuckled.
The CCC is often described as one of the most powerful land use agencies in the country. It was initially created in 1972 and made permanent by the 1976 Coastal Act, a landmark bill designed to protect California’s 1,100 miles of coastline from the ravages of overdevelopment, and to protect sensitive ecosystems. It is known to have the strictest land use rules in the country, and is the last agency to sign off on any kind of development project.
According to one description by a former commissioner, without the protection of the Coastal Act and the commission’s tight rules, California’s coast would look “like the coast of New Jersey.” Instead, he said, California surprisingly enjoys the most pristine and undeveloped coastline in the country—a remarkable achievement in a state with 39 million people.
Sundberg’s appointment comes on the heels of a tumultuous time in the commission. Last year the agency came under fire for the abrupt and unexplained firing of its executive director, Charles Lester, who was widely liked by state residents and environmentalists for his strong antidevelopment stance. The firing was seen by many as a sign that the commission was becoming too cozy with developers, reported Audubonmagazine at the time.
Those fears were bolstered later in the year after business, labor and pro-development interests defeated two bills that would have improved the transparency of the organization, reported the Los Angeles Times. Further complicating the CCC’s reputation was the election defeat of a previous commissioner—Sundberg’s predecessor—who was one of several accused of ethics violations related to Lester’s sacking, according to a 2016 report in the Humbolt Baykeeper.
The liberally oriented commission seems to have been taking steps to improve its reputation with the hiring of a veteran insider to replace his ousted predecessor, a move praised by environmental groups, according to the Los Angeles Times. But it also reflects the state’s enhanced commitment to environmental justice.
Sundberg’s appointment “is doubly historic because he was the first appointment under the newly-in-effect environmental justice legislation that requires the governor to make EJ [environmental justice] appointments when filling commission spots,” said Angela Mooney D’Arcy (Acjachemen), executive director of the Santa Monica-based Sacred Places Institute, to ICMN.
In September 2016 the state legislature passed AB 2616, which required at least one commission member to live in and work directly with communities that are “disproportionately burdened by, and vulnerable to, high levels of pollution and issues of environmental justice as defined,” according to the language in the bill.
“It’s really significant, because from my perspective it’s the governor saying, ‘We understand that the first victims of environmental racism in the state were Native nations,’ ” Mooney D’Arcy said.
Much of the CCC’s work intersects with indigenous issues, particularly the protection of sacred sites and maintaining tribal access to them. With extreme development some parts of the California coast have experienced, like Southern California and the Bay Area, Native sacred sites are always under threat. In some places like Orange County, it has been estimated that 90 percent of Native sacred sites have been lost to rampant development.
Greg Sarris, Tribal Chairman of the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria in Sonoma County—Coast Miwok people within the Coastal Commission’s jurisdiction—was optimistic about the appointment.
“I think it is great that Governor Brown has appointed Ryan Sundberg to the Coastal Commission,” Sarris said. “He is a Tribal Member of the Trinidad Rancheria and will be a welcome support to the coastal tribes and environmentalists who continue to work so hard to secure and restore our coastline.”