Land Back: Californian redwood forest returned to indigenous inhabitants
M Shelton discusses the recent return of an area of Californian Redwood Trees to its indigenous inhabitants.
Ownership of a 523-acre parcel of redwood forest in California has been returned to its indigenous inhabitants. Formerly known as Andersonia West, Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ is located along the iconic Lost Coast of California within the traditional territory of the Sinkyone Native Americans. It is home to 200 acres of old-growth redwoods, as well as endangered or threatened species including coho salmon, steelhead trout, and spotted owls. Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ also acts as a wildlife corridor in a network of around 180,000 acres of protected land on the Lost Coast.
The Sinkyone people thrived in their Californian homelands for thousands of years, but from the mid-1800s were massacred and forcibly removed by European settlers. Survivors were exiled to often distant reservations, whilst the settlers began logging operations on the giant redwoods. This logging was not only devastating to the forest itself, but also to the Sinkyone who regard the redwoods as sacred beings. Since 1850, ninety-five per cent of old-growth coast redwoods in California have been lost.
In 2020, the Save The Redwoods League acquired Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ and donated the land to the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a non-profit organisation comprised of 10 tribes with cultural connections to the traditional Sinkyone and neighbouring tribal territories. It was then that the original name Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ was reinstated, meaning “Fish Run Place” in the Sinkyone language. In return, the Council granted the Save The Redwoods League a conservation easement, thereby enabling collaborative management of the land. The conservation easement also prevents commercial logging, fragmentation, development and public access.
Since 1850, ninety-five per cent of old-growth coast redwoods in California have been lost
The InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council has previously reclaimed other parcels of land, and in the process developed fisheries restoration and forest inventory projects, plus educational programs and environmental advocacy initiatives. The Council also successfully campaigned for the protection of traditional tribal activities including fishing, gathering and harvesting within six of California’s Marine Protected Areas. Within Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ, they hope to implement historical management techniques such as rotational burning. Additional work will include mapping vegetation and wetlands, as well as carrying out wildlife surveys for some of the forest’s most vulnerable species.
The purchase of the land for USD$3.55 million was funded by Pacific Gas & Electric, a company responsible for many wildfires in California, as part of their Compensatory Mitigation Plan. Specifically, ensuring the protection of this land helps the company to meet its long-term conservation goals for the marbled murrelet and northern spotted owl. The Save The Redwoods League hopes that this agreement can serve as a model for conservation organisations to facilitate the return of land to its original indigenous stewards.
Indigenous peoples such as the Sinkyone hold vast traditional knowledge and understanding of their land, which has all too often been overlooked by conservationists. Whilst native and non-native people have many differing ideas about conservation and management practices, the two parties involved in the stewardship of Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ have found mutual core values and goals for eco-cultural recovery. The Save The Redwoods League believes that in order to meet the global 30×30 goal of protecting 30 per cent of the land and ocean by 2030, engagement with indigenous peoples is key. Restoring tribal guardianship can enable innovative conservation by combining traditional knowledge with modern tools, as well as facilitating cultural healing.
To meet the global 30×30 goal of protecting 30 per cent of the land and ocean by 2030, engagement with indigenous peoples is key
It has been proven that conservation projects are the most successful when they are supported by, and eventually managed by, local stakeholders. Restoring indigenous ownership of their traditional territories seems a logical extension of this, given their deep cultural investment in protecting the long-term health of their land and historical ability to use it sustainably. In addition, giving land back could be a meaningful step in compensating for the many atrocities committed against indigenous peoples globally.