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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Unusual Tribal Alliance Saves Forest and Tradition

Air Date: Week of

Beverly Ogle’s great grandmother (right) raised all her children in Humbug Valley, California. (Photo: Beverly Ogle)

In rural northern California landless Mountain Maidu Indians are working closely with the Forest Service. The unusual collaboration gives the Maidu a place to cultivate traditional plants and, at the same time, reduces fire danger. Lisa Morehouse reports.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.

For our next story, we head to northeastern California and the high alpine valley where the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains meet. This land was once filled with the villages of native inhabitants: the Mount Maidu. But 49’ers, gold rush prospectors, developers and government agencies all laid claim to the land that the Mount Maidu people called their home.

And over the decades, the population of the Mount Maidu declined, and so did their access to the land that they use for traditional practices. Now the Mount Maidu are working to regain formal stewardship of their homeland and, as Lisa Morehouse reports, they’re doing it through some unique collaborations.


MOREHOUSE: On the edge of a high mountain meadow called Indian Valley, Danny Manning walks up a steep hill on Indian trust land that’s been in his family for generations. To the right, it’s dark - thick with trees and other growth. But the left side is open and clear, with the neat piles of thinned brush which a crew will soon start carefully burning.


MANNING: When we first started this project, you couldn’t even see 20 feet in front of you, but now you can see about 100 yards up the hill - piles all the way up.


MOREHOUSE: Manning’s the Assistant Fire Chief of the Greenville Rancheria, which is like a reservation. He brought in a small fire crew to tend this land in native ways.


MOREHOUSE: They’re taking out sugar pines and brush, providing space for oaks to encourage the growth of acorns, a traditional Maidu food source. All throughout this region, Manning says, are plants for teas and even poison oak remedies.

MANNING: Anybody else would walk through here and say, “Oh, this is beautiful, this is nice land,” and we look around and see stuff we could use, and we still use it.

MOREHOUSE: Caring for and using the land, he says, is essential to Maidu survival. But there is very little land in Mt. Maidu ownership. Many Maidu aren’t part of federally recognized tribes. Plus, there’s a long history of attempts to keep Maidu from their cultural and ecological practices.

Danny Manning, Assistant Fire Chief of Greenville Rancheria. “When we first started this project, you couldn’t see 20 feet in front of you but now you can see 100 yards up the hill.”
(Lisa Morehouse)

MANNING: My grandma’s generation, they weren’t allowed to practice their native ways because they were in boarding schools and stuff. And so, a lot of it was almost lost forever because it really only takes one generation to lose a culture and cultures were lost. But we’re coming back in a big way.

MOREHOUSE: One sign of that comeback is on a much larger project: over 2,000 acres in Plumas and Lassen National Forests. In 1998, Congress awarded a Maidu organization a pilot project to use traditional ecological knowledge here in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. Now they’re co-managing this land. It’s an unusual effort in community forestry that’s received national and even international visitors.

GORBET: These are healthy plants because they're not crowding each other; they're kind of spread out…


MOREHOUSE: Lorena Gorbet climbs up a hill to sit in an abundant field of bear grass, used for Maidu basketmaking. She says there’s a reason the land always provided the Mt. Maidu all the materials they needed for daily living.

GORBET: And it was because we took care of the land and everything on it. And it took care of us.

MOREHOUSE: Gorbet says communicating that with the Forest Service was tough at first.

GORBET: They said, "Well, what are you going to do? When are you going to do it? What’s your time frame? What’s your budget?" And we said, “Well, we won't know what the land needs until we go out and talk to it, and listen to it, and it will tell us what it needs and when it needs it. “

MCMASTER: We are a federal government agency so we do have a lot of policies and direction that we have to follow.

MOREHOUSE: That’s Wade McMaster, Tribal Relations Program Manager for Plumas and Lassen National Forests.

MCMASTER: And if you look at how tribes do things, it’s much more from the heart and from the spirit. And that’s been kind of a learning experience for us to try to get that integration to work.

MOREHOUSE: Maidu planted grey willow, eradicated noxious weeds, cleared the brush, and cut timber. But there’ve been major gaps in the work due to internal arguments among Maidu themselves, and conflicts over the contract with the Forest Service. Now they’ve resolved their differences.

A Maidu crew led by Danny Manning from the Greenville Rancheria resumed thinning and piling this area, just like they did on his family’s trust land. And the Forest Service and Mt. Maidu are working together on a traditional burn to enhance bear grass growth.


MOREHOUSE: Maidu hope to practice native ecology on an even bigger scale in nearby Humbug Valley.

Beverly Ogle, who traces much of her ancestry to Humbug Valley, at a boulder that promises the Mountain Maidu will be connected to the region always. (Lisa Morehouse)

OGLE: This vast valley was plum full of Maidu villages. And there was a time when my grandmother said that at nighttime you could see many flickering fires all around this great valley.

MOREHOUSE: Beverly Ogle says she can trace her Humbug Valley roots back at least five generations. This large mountain meadow east of Greenville is rimmed by forest and contains mineral springs and the lovely Yellow Creek.


MOREHOUSE: Ogle has insisted for years that Humbug’s owners protect sites like burial grounds and the large-scale grinding pits she points out just past the road we’re on.

OGLE: You can almost picture the Maidu people sitting on the ground and working their seeds. People were driving over these pits and destroying them and as you can see, the formation of these pits are very delicate, so it doesn’t take much for these to ruin over time.

MOREHOUSE: For 100 years, power companies have flooded valleys in this part of California for hydropower. But not Humbug. It’s owned by Pacific Gas & Electric but was never flooded and it remains relatively unspoiled. And now, Humbug Valley may be up for grabs.

After the California energy crisis, PG&E filed for bankruptcy in 2001. As part of a huge settlement, thousands of acres of PG&E land, including Humbug Valley, could go to new owners. A non-profit stewardship council is managing the decision making process.

OGLE: I would like to see it fall back in the hands of out Maidu people, so we can once again be stewards of this land. It’ll never be the same, but pretty near.


MOREHOUSE: Ogle’s with the non-profit Maidu Summit Consortium which is vying for Humbug Valley. In their proposal, the group envisions this as a vast park where they can demonstrate and share native ecology and culture with the public, and protect cultural and sacred sites. But the Maidu aren’t only contenders. Bill Somer is with the California Department of Fish and Game.

SOMER: The Department has identified this property as an important value in terms of the fish and wildlife values, and the size of the parcel and how it fits in on the landscape.

MOREHOUSE: Fish and Game, which has worked on the Yellow Creek fishery for decades, hopes to manage Humbug Valley as a wildlife area. Somer says they’re a stable state agency with specialists who manage over a million acres in California. If they become the landowner, they hope to involve Maidu in protecting cultural resources. But the Maidu have lots of supporters in their bid, including the Forest Service. Beverly Ogle:

OGLE: I almost beg for … at least this small part of this world to return it to our Maidu people so we can once again have a land base to practice our culture.


MOREHOUSE: Practice customs like annual Bear Dances, a traditional ceremony and gathering. To do this now, one group of Maidu return to the site of one of their old villages, only now it's a campground and they have to pay to rent it. In June, about 200 Mt. Maidu people and friends met here to eat, tell stories, and make flutes from elderberry branches.


MOREHOUSE: A possible $200,000 grant in the works would allow Maidu to show they can manage a large-scale improvement project. That would give them a better shot at regain the Humbug Valley where Beverly Ogle says she hopes one day to see Bear Dances.

For Living on Earth, I’m Lisa Morehouse in Plumas County, California.




Stewardship Council Formed from the PG&E Bankruptcy

Maidu Non-profit Stewardship Alliance

United States Forest Service Work with Tribes


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