After numerous attempts to reach Wiyot Tribal Administrator Michelle Vassel and Tribal Chair Ted Hernandez for comment in recent weeks, the Outpost received an email Wednesday afternoon with statements from both Vassel and Wiyot Tribal Secretary Marnie Atkins concerning the efforts by North Coast Railroad Company, LLC, to take over the rail line between Humboldt Bay and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Both statements are reproduced in full below.

From Vassel:

I do not believe the Wiyot Tribal Council would ever support a coal-related project nor do I believe that our local community would allow a project based in coal to flourish.

Consider the actions of the Wiyot Tribe over the past 10, 100 or 1000 years, coal does not align with our values. The Tribal Council did entertain a potential project related to the restoration of the rail line. We evaluate a lot of potential projects, this one, like many before it, was not pursued by the Tribe.  

The Tribe’s highest priority is the removal of the two dams on the Eel River and restoration of the river. Part of our evaluation of this project centers around the health of the Eel River. When we were considering the rail project, we thought about whether we could use proceeds from the rail project towards restoring the Eel River.

To gain more insight into the feasibility of this idea, I contacted our Eel River allies “Friends of the Eel” to discuss their thoughts on it. Friends of the Eel put us in touch with Mike McGuire’s office in relation to the Great Redwood Trail and that was the first time coal was mentioned.  

I have been repeatedly contacted by Mike McGuire’s staff, Jason Liles, who informed me Monday night about the memo quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune. I do not know any one of the names associated with the memo, and I am not quoted in the memo as stating the Tribe is “fully committed.”  

There is a statement in the memo that reads, “The Wiyot Nation is “fully committed to this project… ,” which is not attributed to me.   From my recollection about this call, it was a presentation about Humboldt Bay and potential port development. The Tribe participates in meetings like this every day. We review permits, we review concepts, we review economic development projects. We carefully consider each project and conduct due diligence efforts to ensure that any potential project aligns with the Tribe’s commitment to the health and wellbeing of Wiyot people and their ancestral lands.

At the call that I attended, there was never a discussion about what supplies would be transported over the rail. Once it was determined that this project could cost upwards of a billion dollars to restore the railway, the Tribe decided to no longer pursue the project.

And from Atkins:

As I am sure you are aware, the Tribe has and will explore all options of economic development to support its tribal citizens, government, and myriad of tribal initiatives.

Another point that seems to go unnoticed is the fact that our Tribal Administrator, Michelle Vassel, has given clarifying statements that the Wiyot Tribe is not involved in a coal train. She also confirmed that we have been approached by people who wish to rehabilitate the railway but there was never a specific discussion about what would be transported on the railway. 

Further, she is quoted as making statements that there would not be a lot of opposition to rehabilitating the railway so that people, supplies, and goods could be transported along it — not coal.

Again, there was never a specific discussion about what supplies, and goods would be transported along the rail with the Tribe. Instead, there was excitement about the prospect of opening our “Redwood Curtain” to the rest of the State to bring more economic opportunities to the region and to affordably deliver goods and supplies to the people of Humboldt, Del Norte, Mendocino, and Trinity counties. Not coal, but a train to help us gain valuable resources and jobs to make it more affordable to live here.

These types of economic explorations are not nefarious or shadowy. Nor do they go against the Tribe’s commitment to the health and well-being of our ancestral lands, waterways, air, plants, animals, and humans that inhabit our aboriginal territory.

Once we discovered the high price tag and lack of feasibility of rehabilitating the railway, we decided to no longer consider it as an option for economic development.

The Wiyot Tribe has always been an advocate and ally to our ancestral lands, waterways, air, plants, animals, and humans who inhabit our aboriginal territory. We have completed multi-million-dollar environmental restoration projects around Wigi (Humboldt Bay) and along our waterways. We partner and ally with local organizations (several are cc’d on this email) who can, hopefully, speak to our commitment (or be reminded of) to these lands and all that they encompass.

It is difficult to imagine that having a conversation with a group of people seeking to rehabilitate a railway would demolish the goodwill and ongoing stewardship efforts we have demonstrated over the past 40+ years — some years were more involved than others and depended upon the willingness of local organizations to invite us to the table.

Sometimes people would rather believe the sensational over the factual and I suppose this is something that the Tribe will have to overcome and work to mend relationships with our current and future partners.