Maidu Stewardship Project: Restoring the Understory
Lilly Baker, a Maidu basket weaver, uses willow from the Plumas National Forest to practice her art.
Lorena Gorbet moves across a meadow at the base of Keddie Ridge, choosing her steps carefully among the green shoots just starting to push through the soil. A breeze ruffles her dark hair as she pauses, cocking her head to listen.
The plants are coming back and the people are coming back to take care of them. The sad feeling is gone, says Gorbet, a spokeswoman for the United Maidu Nation.
Its hard for me to see what makes Gorbet optimistic about this landscape. She is walking along the edge of grassland rutted and strewn with flood debris. The creek that trickles past is eroded, its cutbanks ragged with cottonwood roots dangling in the pale spring sun. Most of the trees that survive look forlorn.
Even the U.S. Forest Service has all but given up on this area in northeastern California on the Plumas National Forest. The land is marred with a highway, a railroad, a dump and a network of mostly unauthorized dirt roads. No saw logs have been cut here in years.
But it is the lands devastation that makes it attractive to Maidus. They have chosen it for a national demonstration of traditional Maidu forest management techniques. Their proposal for 2,100 acres of national forest land was one of twenty-eight stewardship pilot projects authorized by Congress in 1998. Because the area is accessible and in public view, the location is ideal to exhibit their skills, says Gorbet.
We want to show we can bring the land back just by taking care of it, she says. Beyond the obvious restoration challenge, Gorbet and other Maidus see in this land what most of us do not: ideal habitat for beargrass, gray willow, maples and oaks, all culturally important as food, medicines, basket and ceremonial materials. After decades of watching these species decline or disappear, the United Maidu Nation is staking its claim to its centuries-old heritage on this shattered landscape.
The project is as much a test for the Forest Service as for the Maidus. It is the only place in the nation where American Indians are applying traditional stewardship techniques to national forest land. Instead of working with the timber industry to manage the pines, firs and cedars that produce lumber, here the Forest Service is working with Maidus to manage the forest understory for nontimber products.
Its a huge step, says Joe Mitchell, former Forest Service tribal relations program manager who now works as a natural resources manager with the Washington office. It shows that the agency is willing to collaborate with tribes. It also shows a willingness to allow American Indians to demonstrate the knowledge they have acquired from experience, forest management skills that have not been well accepted in the past. Before this, tribes did not have much input into forest management. Here they are a partner, Mitchell says.
The objective is not to eliminate modern forest management tools but to integrate traditional knowledge with science. That is raising issues that transcend Maidus and American Indians generally, says Farrell Cunningham, Maidu project coordinator. Anyone who lives in a rural community surrounded by national forests knows the challenge of working with a federal agency to incorporate local knowledge into management that protects towns and creates local jobs.
We have a unique setting and a unique relationship with the land, but we are using these tools to answer the same questions that scientists everywhere are trying to answer, Cunningham says.
LEARNING TO COMMUNICATE
Integrating science and oral tradition is only part of the challenge the new partners face. Their negotiations to reach this tentative alliance have often been difficult. Even when they communicate in English, they speak different languages. At one tense meeting in 1998, Plumas Forest supervisor Mark Madrid explained the importance of a set of written objectives, a formal business plan and a budget to help them get the biggest bang for the buck.
The Maidus looked puzzled. Their plan was less bureaucratic. We wont know what the land needs until we go out there and talk to it and see what it wants, Gorbet replied. Gradually, however, Maidus have learned to speak Forest Service and agency officials have learned to hear what they are saying. Its challenging, says Terri Simon-Jackson, the district ranger responsible for implementing the Maidu project. Her job is to understand their vision and plug it into the agency process while complying with government regulations. The project is an opportunity for the agency to learn where the understory is out of balance-why some plants are not there anymore and why others need help, she says.
Their divergent forest management goals may be the least of the differences between Maidus and Forest Service officials. They have different mindsets, different worldviews. We tend to overrun them but they are very patient. They let me talk until I get tired of talking. Then I listen, says Simon-Jackson.
The partnership with Maidus represents a major shift for the Forest Service. In addition to their focus on the forest understory, Maidus bring a dramatically different concept of time. In their project application to the agency, they proposed developing their stewardship demonstration over ninety-nine years. They now talk about 200 years to restore the woods to their understory ideal. Thats an inconceivably long timeline for an agency that gets its funding from Congress year by year.
American Indian tribes have historically related to the cycle of seasons through time without imposing restrictions on the natural order, says Mitchell. But they recognize that government doesnt operate that way. If Maidus want to influence the Forest Service with their belief in long-range management, they have to help the agency officials think in ways different from what they are accustomed to.
Still, ninety-nine years is not out of the question, he says. We would be setting a precedent here, but I dont know why we couldnt.
Some kind of long-term commitment is key, says Warren Gorbet, vice chairman of the Maidu Cultural and Development Group, which initiated the project. Forests grow and mature over centuries, not decades. Many of us will be over the mountain when this land comes into its natural pre-European contact era, he says.
MODELING THE PRE-EUROPEAN FOREST
Maidus have been tending the flowers, shrubs and trees growing in the forests of the Feather River watershed for centuries-ever since, they say, Worldmaker made the land safe for his people. They farmed camas bulbs, digging some for food and leaving others to ensure a constant supply. They pruned the willows and maples to generate straight shoots for weaving baskets. They cultivated oaks, encouraging low branches and big bushy heads to produce the acorns that were the mainstay of their diet. Oaks also provided materials for weapons.
Wherever they took, they left something: tilled soil to make it easier for bulbs to propagate, pruned branches to strengthen next years growth, dropped clam shells to nourish the soil. Even a song was a good thing to leave.
The most important Maidu management tool was fire. They used it to reduce the underbrush and maintain the mix of plant and animal species they valued. Warren Gorbet, a local landowner and Lorena Gorbets cousin, remembers his grandfather using a forked stick to pull slow-burning flames away from the plants he wanted to protect. Ive gotten more modern. I use a pitchfork, he says.
Historically, the Forest Service has not appreciated the role of natural fire. Gifford Pinchot, the agencys first chief, derisively called it Paiute forestry. As recently as the 1970s, Forest Service officials issued citations to Maidus for their annual underburning. However, as modern science catches up with American Indian expertise, low-intensity burns are considered a natural part of the forest ecosystem and agency officials welcome including it in the stewardship project.
In their project, Maidus will reintroduce these management techniques as they coax the land back to its glory. The results could produce a significant byproduct: a model of the pre-European forest landscape. Many talk about returning the forests of the West to the health they enjoyed before European settlers arrived, but nobody knows what that was, says Cunningham, the project coordinator.
Maidus know, he says. Indigenous people in other places also remember how their ancestors managed their lands. They passed down where they gathered willow and redbud, when they burned and how often. Some people have fabricated false mental images of forest ecosystems evolving without human treatment but its nonsense, Cunningham says. This wasnt just some natural forest where natural means people arent part of it. Weve always been part of this landscape.
The Forest Service has invested $275,000 so far in planning and a federally required environmental review of the Maidu project. This summer Maidus hope to complete the study and start work on the ground. They are planning a public nature trail that identifies plants of cultural and ecological significance. Each will be labeled by its Maidu, common and scientific name.
Tommy Merino, chairman of the Maidu Cultural and Development Group, the pilot project sponsor, has already identified eighty-five culturally significant species. Kneeling beside a low-growing gray-green plant, he gently fingers the soft pungent leaves. Its moo-moo-em, what you call wormwood, he says. It probably looks like a weed to you, but we see the forest a little differently. Everything has value to us. Every plant and animal has something we can respect and use.
This summer may also see the beginning of the thinning and brushing designed to restore maples, willows and beargrass to their traditional Maidu uses. Maps in the project plan outline willow and maple management areas along Wolf Creek. The work will include ripping out Scotch broom and other invasive species and planting native grasses. Maidu crews also plan to remove the remains of an old logging camp and return quaking aspen to the area. Nearby they will construct two seep areas to restore the floodplain and reduce downstream erosion.
Teams of Maidu students have started gathering baseline data for monitoring the ecological effects of the work. Once a week they measure trees, study drip lines and determine the depth and width of creeks at fixed locations. The monitoring not only teaches math and science skills, it also trains the future workforce while instilling cultural values.
The Maidu plan includes several fuelbreaks to reduce the threat of catastrophic fire to the nearby community of Greenville. How much to remove and which species will be determined on a site-by-site basis, not a predetermined formula, says Warren Gorbet, who also owns Indian Head Logging Company. The goal is to return the forest to a state that will tolerate low-intensity underburning without favoring any one plant or animal type.
We respect all species, including the soil. All living things have a right to survive here, he says.
The thinning work presents one of the biggest challenges for the Forest Service. Maidus would like to do it themselves to ensure that it fits with their traditional management goals, but government regulations require the Forest Service to open any contract work to competitive bids. The agency tries to avoid sole-source contracts, says Bill Wickman, regional liaison for stewardship pilot projects. Forest Service officials are determining the legalities involved in contracting work on the Maidu project.
They have also delayed any on-the-ground work in the Homer Lake area, a 600-acre tract ten miles north of the 1,500-acre management area. A pristine alpine lake at the base of sheer cliffs 7,500 feet above sea level, Homer Lake is sacred to Maidus, the place where they renew their spiritual powers.
Bureaucratically, however, Homer Lake is just over the ridge that divides the Plumas and the Lassen national forests. The Lassens land use plan designates it as a semiprimitive area precluded from timber harvest. Lassen officials have announced plans to close a road within a mile of the lake to protect it from off-road vehicles. That, however, has not happened.
Another disappointment for Maidus is their dream of building a roundhouse as a cultural and environmental interpretive center. That plan preceded the forest management plan, but it is on hold. Building a structure on Forest Service land represents an encumbrance, says Simon-Jackson, the district ranger. It is not compatible with forest management and creates an exclusive use generally barred on public lands.
Instead of battling over the roundhouse, Simon-Jackson is focusing on the stewardship management. She hopes that success there will lead to other aspects of the Maidu vision later.
I stand back and wait for common ground to evolve. It might not happen in my lifetime, but as long as we trust and talk to each other, this will work out, Simon-Jackson says.
STRENGTHENING MAIDU CULTURE
Meanwhile, the project has stimulated other Maidu activities that are deepening their sense of their past and how it contributes to their future. Maidu elders and youth completed a map listing the Maidu names for rivers, mountains and other geographic features. They also printed a twenty-page guide to local landmarks mentioned in Maidu myths, describing how the mountains and valleys were created and at what peril to Worldmaker and Coyote, his mischievous alter ego.
In March, the Maidu Cultural and Development Group filed an application to place Soda Rock, a culturally significant landmark, on the National Register of Historic Places. About twenty Maidus, from sixth graders to elders, are meeting regularly for language classes. Another group is learning traditional Maidu dance.
For Lorena Gorbet, the combination of activities has contributed to a sense of joy she has not felt in years. Standing in a clearing under towering pines, where she dreams of building a roundhouse, she remembers walking past these trees five years ago. She says the land felt gray and sad, but today she feels an excitement like the tingling of energy she feels when stroking an eagle feather.
Its like the land is saying Welcome back. Where have you been?