San Diego With the passing of two years since the Cedar fire, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park has healed, and 98 percent of the park's trails have been reopened. Among the areas not reopened is Los Caballos equestrian campground, but not because the land has yet to heal. Manzanita and wild lilac grow again around the campground, and the scorched oak trees are crowned with green. "All the grasses have regrown," says Peggy Martin, a local equestrian. "Everything is in its pre-fire condition now, and we believe we should be camping there now."
But in a sense, the fire still prevents horse owners from camping in the 18-site campground just south of Lake Cuyamaca because, though it's always been known that Indian artifacts can be found there, the full extent of the archaeology wasn't known until the fire burned the chaparral. "It just made it easier," says Carmen Lucas, a member of the local Kwaaymii Laguna Band of Mission Indians, "to see the soil content and the artifacts that are there, stuff that we know that is part of prehistory, including human remains."
Shortly after the fire, Lucas, acting as a Native American monitor for the state parks department on its project to tear down and rebuild the restroom at the campground, objected to the project on the basis that it would violate an Indian site. The project was stopped. "I, as an Indian," she says, "and an Indian of this particular land, have familial ties to this land, and I have a moral obligation to take care of my ancestors. When I am asked to participate in this process, I can't refuse that. I will express my views. I am sorry that other people don't agree with it. I have not pursued this -- I have been asked to participate. And I have a right to speak in behalf of my ancestors, and I will continue to do that."
Lucas says the area that includes Los Caballos isn't just archaeologically significant, but sacred. "Any site that has human remains has spiritual connotations too," she explains. "It is not an appropriate place for a horse camp, a school camp, or any other kind of camp. These are sanctuaries just like somebody's church is. It needs to be respected in that context."
Martin believes horse camping and respect for the Indian history of the site aren't mutually exclusive, even when human remains are present. "People have said you are camping in a cemetery," she says, "and I take opposition to that. Native Americans buried their children and elderly and dogs where they lived. And women cooked on top of their loved ones. They lived with the people that they buried, so why can't we? What is different?"
Both sides of the argument agree that Los Caballos sits within a roughly 54-acre archaeological site that both sides refer to as a village. "It was called Ah-Ha Kwe-Ah Mac," says Lucas's personal attorney, Courtney Coyle, "which is the namesake for the whole state park. It's no accident that the horse camp was built on that spot. It is kind of like any sort of real estate: location, location, location. The places that were good places to be then are good now. So that is why you oftentimes will find trails, village sites, burial areas, culturally rich places in places where people want to be today, whether it is along the coastline of La Jolla or somewhere up in the mountains. So that is not an unusual thing, but that doesn't make it right. And in this case, this site is a village site, the largest village that people know about in the park unit, and it is linked historically to other Indian places to the north, to the south, to the east, and to the west. So the very qualities that made it such a vibrant, rich cultural site are the same qualities that the horse people like, because they want to be in a place that is pretty and has a lot of trails that go off in different directions. Historically, this has been a problem, so that is why a lot of the management plans, like the Cuyamaca state park's general plan, say when you get the chance, you should move recreational facilities like campgrounds out of cultural sites."
Coyle believes the obligation to move developments such as Los Caballos off Indian heritage sites isn't only moral but legal. "Under a state public resources code," she explains, "they have an obligation to protect these things, and at this site you've got a very large village, with the burials and cremations which speak to the antiquity and diversity."
Mark Jorgensen, acting superintendent of the state parks district that includes Cuyamaca Rancho and Anza-Borrego Desert State Parks, says the overwhelming archaeological richness of the site caused his agency to rethink the plan to replace Los Caballos, which was originally built in the mid-1950s. "There have been five different reports done by archaeologists over the last 75 years," he explains. "A lot of data on archaeological sites is not public information because of the presence of human remains. But I will tell you that excavations in the 1930s revealed numerous human remains. Just in one small study plot, a couple hundred square feet, there were 18 cremations exhumed. There are hundreds of other Native American features on this site and a lot of remains."
The plan for Los Caballos, Jorgensen says, is "not to preclude equestrian camping at all, but to find some area nearby, with the agreement of all parties, that will supply equal or even superior camping and equestrian recreational opportunities. So over the last several months -- actually, in the last couple of years since the fire -- we've been in a position of getting input from these radically different groups and trying to find some middle ground. A couple of weeks ago we had a gathering at which reps from the different focus groups got together, and the equestrians put forth the idea that they would be willing to consider an alternative site nearby that provided the level of camping opportunities that Los Caballos had provided. They would like to get back in on a temporary basis to use parts of Los Caballos in the meantime, so we are considering that right now."
Martin counters that the equestrian community will consider a new location only as a last-resort compromise. She says equestrians are looking at Los Caballos as a "line in the sand" because they feel that similar problems with Indian artifacts and remains will pop up at any comparable location. "The Native Americans camped and lived in our state park for 7000 years," Martin says. "Anywhere that we want to camp is where they lived because of the advantages of shade and being near a meadow and water. So I am concerned that any other place that they go to build a campground is going to run into the same problems that they have here."
As evidence, she adds, "The Lucky 5 Ranch recently got acquired; it creates a continuum between Cuyamaca and Borrego state parks. Well, there were funds committed by the department to build a horse camp there, because there was already a private horse camp there. They just had to kind of spruce it up a little bit, get the road in better, and that kind of thing. So the funds were committed and they were going to build this, but Carmen Lucas came in as a consultant and said that she would sue if they did it. So they didn't, and the funds were returned to the state coffers."
According to Jorgensen, the money was diverted to day-use facilities on another part of the ranch.
Without a site available, Martin worries that the 50-year tradition of camping with horses in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park will end. Some in the equestrian community worry that that will lead to banning horses from the park altogether. Their worries are unfounded, Jorgensen says. "We reopened Los Vaqueros equestrian group camp last June 1. We basically converted that from a group horse camp to a family horse camp to provide the recreational opportunities for families wanting to come to Cuyamaca Rancho with their horses and still have the opportunity to get on the trail system and camp overnight with their horses right there in their corrals."
Jorgensen, a horse owner himself, adds, "Some equestrians might tell you that they think state parks would like to kick horsemen out of Cuyamaca. That is never going to happen. It is not an intent of anybody, not discussed, not true."
Lucas says she doesn't want horses banned from the park either. "I think it is important that you understand that I am a horse lover too," she explains. "I lost two horses, and my home, in the Cedar fire, and it is very painful. I miss my horses a lot. But does a horse camp belong in a sacred site? No, of course not."
On top of equestrian objections to relocating the campground, there is the problem of money. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency would likely pay to rebuild the burned-out restroom building at the existing campground, they would not pay to build a campground at a different site. "We are going to have to be very creative," Jorgensen says. "We are going to have to do a lot of the work ourselves, use our own heavy equipment and our own heavy-equipment operators. I am committed and so is the Sacramento staff to do a lot of the work ourselves, and then I foresee us calling on the equestrian community, which is large in California, to come and help us out."
Public meetings hosted by state parks in the Descanso town hall have served to further polarize the equestrians and the Indians. (A third party, environmentalists seeking to preserve an endangered plant known as Cuyamaca meadowfoam, opposes rebuilding Los Caballos because the plant grows in and around the campground.) Both sides are now talking lawsuit. "That is a strong likelihood," says Coyle. "And that is not meant to be threatening. It is just meant to say this is how much the tribal interest cares about this. They would be willing to go to court to enforce their rights."
Asked if the equestrians would sue should state parks decide to relocate the 50-year-old horse camp, Martin answers, "You know, what else is left?"