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Native American tribes reclaim a redwood forest in Northern California

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 1/25/2022 By Kurtis Alexander

Deep in the mountains of Mendocino County, nearly 200 acres of old-growth redwoods, chronically threatened by logging, have long stood on a plot known as Andersonia West, well beyond the reach and awareness of most Californians — at least since Native Americans lived there.

Today, in a story that goes full circle, this ancient grove of trees has garnered permanent protection and the land is back in the hands of those who call it home.

The deal, announced Tuesday, was orchestrated by San Francisco conservation group Save the Redwoods League. The organization purchased the wooded swath two years ago and last month transferred its ownership to the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, which represents tribal nations with historical ties to the area. Covenants on the property ensure the forest’s preservation.

“This is an extraordinary effort by the tribes and the Sinkyone Council to regain and begin the process of recovering their stewardship of their traditional territory,” said Hawk Rosales, a former executive director of the council. “This is an important victory.”

The remote property is nestled between Sinkyone Wilderness State Park and privately owned forest lands in an area commonly called the Lost Coast, about five hours north of San Francisco. The land is accessible only by narrow, mountainous private roads.

The property is marked not only by the 200 acres of towering old-growth redwoods but also fog-shrouded stands of Douglas fir, tan oaks and second-growth redwood trees, encompassing a total of 523 acres. It includes a meandering creek that feeds the south fork of the Eel River and supports coho salmon and steelhead trout.

“The land itself is profoundly beautiful and remarkably powerful,” Rosales said.

Before becoming a bastion of logging over the past century and a half, the Lost Coast was the hunting, fishing and ceremonial grounds of the Sinkyone people. The villages of Indigenous communities flanked the region for thousands of years.


Video: California forest returned to native tribal group (Associated Press)

With European settlement, however, the native residents were largely killed off or forced from the land in a dark chapter of California’s past.

The Sinkyone Council, established in 1986, has sought to reconnect descendants of the Sinkyone people to their historic territory. The organization advocates for protection of forests and streams along California’s North Coast and maintains its own preserve, the 3,845-acre InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness.

The group’s new property, which is being renamed Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ — meaning “fish run place” in the Sinkyone language — is only a few miles northwest of its flagship preserve.

“This land fits within the objective of nurturing a mosaic of lands along the Lost Coast and hopefully much farther,” Rosales said.

The Sinkyone Council intends to work with Save the Redwoods League, which retains an easement on the property, to care for the land and restore its natural character. There is no plan for public access, though tribal members may visit in the future for cultural purposes.

Sam Hodder, president and CEO of Save the Redwoods League, said donating the plot to the Sinkyone Council was not only a smart thing to do to meet his group’s objective of responsibly stewarding the land but also the right thing to do.

“This is an opportunity to heal both the forest itself and the culture of the landscape,” he said.

Save the Redwoods League is part of a loose consortium of state and federal government agencies and nonprofit organizations that has collectively protected about 180,000 acres of forest on the Lost Coast. Some of the land consists of old-growth redwoods. Only about 5% of the age-old trees still stand across their historical range from Central California to southern Oregon.

The property recently donated was acquired by Save the Redwoods League in July 2020 for $3.55 million from a family that had sparsely logged the area. The purchase was paid for with funding from Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s mitigation program, a fund set up to offset impacts from the utility’s electric grid.

The recent donation follows a similar land deal a decade ago. Save the Redwoods League transferred a 164-acre property north of Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ, known as Four Corners, to the Sinkyone Council in 2012.

“It’s absolutely the goal to have it happen more,” Hodder said. “It is a positive on so many levels.”

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: kalexander@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @kurtisalexander

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