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Native Americans to Acquire Land for a Coast Redwood Park : Nature: Conservancy decides to cede 3,900 acres of old-growth forest to intertribal council. Environmentalists hail the action, but timber industry opposes it.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The state Coastal Conservancy has decided to return 3,900 acres of Northern California coastal old-growth redwood forest to the stewardship of Native Americans.

The site will become the nation’s first intertribal wilderness park, said the Ukiah-based Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council.

The consortium of 10 California Indian tribes said it plans to restore the mountainous forest next to Sinkyone State Wilderness Park to its former condition as a stable and diverse ecosystem.

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“We will protect the Sinkyone, provide access to all people and provide a living intertribal park,” said Priscilla Hunter, council chairwoman.

The council envisions a park based on 10,000-year-old native traditions in which humans are seen as an asset to the ecosystem, rather than a threat, Hunter said. Indigenous peoples worldwide are watching developments here, she added.

In a highly charged Coastal Conservancy meeting last month in Ft. Bragg, a logging town just south of the proposed Sinkyone park, timber officials, environmentalists and Native Americans of many tribes passionately presented their hopes for the area.

About 200 miles north of San Francisco, the scenic coastal region is known as California’s “Lost Coast” because the coast highway veers inland to avoid the rugged, unstable 1,600-foot mountains rising steeply from the Pacific.

The high mountains catch incoming moisture from the ocean, creating some of the nation’s highest levels of precipitation and largest redwoods. Though heavily logged, the Sinkyone forest includes a portion of the state’s only remaining old-growth redwood groves.

At the March 20 conservancy meeting, timber officials objected adamantly to the park proposal, saying it was a “$1.1-million giveaway” at taxpayers’ expense and would hurt the local economy. Families in the area dependent on the timber industry would suffer, union members argued.

“The only people who have had input on this issue are the same people who want to halt all logging on the North Coast,” said Richard Hargreaves, speaking on behalf of local unions.

Referring to a 1987 agreement in which the land was zoned for multiple uses, including sustained-yield timber harvest, union officials argued that the timber industry had been “stabbed in the back” by the change in plans.

But in a December resolution, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors unanimously supported the intertribal park concept.

At the Ft. Bragg meeting, Supervisor Liz Henry advised the conservancy not to be swayed by arguments that this action would somehow take the “last brick out of the wall” and collapse the local timber industry.

“‘There is room for diversification in Mendocino County’s economy, and we feel that this one and only first intertribal park in the Sinkyone is something that will put Mendocino on the map in the world. . . . It will be one of the jewels of our area,” she said. The resulting gains in “eco-tourism” would eventually offset timber industry losses, she said.

The Sinkyone forest area was the site of atrocities against Native Americans in the 19th Century. In the 1850s, when mining and logging of the region began, Native Americans were massacred and their children sold into “apprenticeships” in San Francisco, with adolescent girls often fetching top dollar.

One old-growth grove is named for Sally Bell, a Sinkyone native who said that as a child she watched her parents slaughtered while she held in her hands her baby sister’s heart, cut out by vigilantes and thrown near the bushes where she hid. Bell told the story years later to an anthropologist conducting research in the area.

Environmentalists at the meeting called for the conservancy to “make right the conscience of this country” by giving back the land at no cost.

After six hours of public testimony, the conservancy voted unanimously to transfer the land to the intertribal council. Though the property would be worth about $4 million if it were open to logging, conservation restrictions reduce the value to about $1.4 million. The purchase price will be decided in three months, conservancy officials said.

Hawk Rosales, an intertribal council official, said federal funding will be sought for the purchase. Supporters already have raised about $100,000.

The possibility of creating the nation’s first wilderness park under the stewardship of Native Americans has attracted the support of many environmental groups.

A Native American-made documentary, “Run to Save the Sinkyone,” won an award in January at Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah. In the film, the coastal Sinkyone forest is described as so rich in seaweed, herbs, shells and other resources that it supported one of the largest human populations in the nation before the arrival of Europeans.

At present the Sinkyone uplands are the subject of several research projects in botany, hydrology, ethno-historical studies and land management.

Indigenous people from North and South America and elsewhere have visited the Sinkyone area and are very aware of developments there, Rosales said.

“The most important outcome of all this is the far-reaching impact on native communities worldwide. This project establishes a process. This means native cultures all over the world have a better chance of surviving, if they can use that model,” he said.

Until an option agreement expires in three years, the land will remain under management of its present owner, the Trust for Public Lands. After that, the intertribal council has far-ranging plans for the park.

While no one will be allowed to live on the land permanently and no permanent structures will be permitted, plans call for establishing about four village sites in the region for retreats, cultural activities and other gatherings.

“These villages would be built only of traditional materials and in a traditional way as described by the elders and local community people,” Rosales said.

For Native American children and others plagued by loss of self-esteem and subject to drug and alcohol problems from the pressures of modern society, the villages would be a refuge in which to recover, intertribal council officials said.

“Sinkyone can provide a place for children to go and to really live the Indian way,” Rosales said. “It means, even for a short period of time, they can practice the ways and spend the time with their elders and have the important aspects of their culture passed on to them.”


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