Tijuana River estuary
The Tijuana river. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Every year, the state Lands Commission makes decisions that impact the lives of millions of Californians and over 150 indigenous nations. This little-known agency manages more than four million acres of the state’s public lands. From managing oil and gas leases along the coast, to overseeing development in the vicinity of the Tijuana River in the south, and Goose Lake in the north, the commission’s decisions have consequences that last for generations.

One of the commission’s core responsibilities is ensuring the people of California can use the public lands and waters under its care. But right here in San Diego County, we have a river that is inaccessible due to pollution, and tribal communities that have been displaced from ancestral homelands. Now, the Lands Commission has an opportunity to change the course of California land management by adopting an environmental justice policy that unites the needs and perspectives of communities whose interests have historically been disregarded.

Any discussion about just management of California state lands must be grounded in the history of those lands, where indigenous peoples lived for millennia before European colonizers invaded and occupied North America. Following the American annexation of California, the state worked for decades to carry out what Gov. Peter Burnett called a “war of extermination.” The state provided nearly half a million dollars to private militias dedicated to killing indigenous people, and legalized their enslavement. Meanwhile, the federal government refused to ratify treaties that would have reserved 11,700 square miles, an area comparable in size to the state of Maryland, for California Native Nations.

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Here in San Diego, the Kumeyaay have been fighting to protect and access their ancestral homelands since a 1775 uprising against Mission San Diego de Alcalá. Today, some California tribes are landless, without even a place to rebury ancestors whose graves have been disturbed by state-sanctioned development. It is time to reverse the policies that have decimated and dislocated indigenous peoples. The state Lands Commission can start by supporting land returns, traditional practices, and tribal management.

California’s history of marginalizing people of color communities is not limited to Native American people. Communities in the border region struggle to secure the state’s help to protect their health and access to nature as dangerous pollution that chokes local streams and shuts down beaches.

Last year, over 140 million gallons of untreated sewage and toxic waste, thousands of old tires and tons of trash washed down the Tijuana River and out to sea at Imperial Beach, sickening swimmers, fishers and surfers, and closing miles of beaches. Thankfully, the state Lands Commission recently joined litigation against the Trump administration to halt the flow of toxic waters and garbage from the Tijuana River to the Pacific Ocean. This is a step in the right direction that came after years of community advocacy.

More can and should be done, however, to clean up the most polluted corner of California. As a landowner in the U.S. portion of the lower Tijuana River watershed, the commission has the capacity to require that its lessees clean up trash and sewage from the Tijuana River, which renders recreational trails useless, and fouls our waterways and beaches with sewage.

The commission has been working this year to update its environmental justice policy to better address the needs of California’s underserved communities. We applaud its decision to consider the concerns of those disproportionately affected by pollution and environmental injustice. The updated policy and implementation blueprint can lead to accountability, transparency, concrete solutions for under-served communities, and more meaningful agency engagement with California indigenous nations.

To ensure our state lands are managed in a way that works for all Californians, the commission must analyze environmental justice impacts for all potential projects, create an environmental justice advisory committee that directly interacts with commissioners, convene an inter-agency land returns and tribal advisory committee, and provide clear guidance on the implementation of the policy throughout the agency.

On Monday, Dec. 3, the state Lands Commission will meet in San Diego on the ancestral homelands of the Kumeyaay to vote on its revised environmental justice policy. This is an opportunity to transform California land management by adopting a policy that guarantees under-served populations are involved in the commission’s decision-making.

Angela Mooney D’Arcy is the executive director of the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples. Paloma Aguirre is the coastal and marine director at WILDCOAST.