Return of the Sinkyone—Land&People

For thousands of years the Sinkyone people of northern California thrived along a mountainous, fog-shrouded coast 140 miles north of present-day San Francisco. Each summer they would travel from inland villages along the South Fork of the Eel River (“Sinkikok” in the Native tongue) in search of cool ocean air and a bountiful harvest of fish, seaweed, acorns, roots, seeds, nuts, bulbs, and berries. Eventually the coast and its neighboring uplands would come to bear the people’s name.

Like many other California Native groups, the Sinkyone suffered greatly in the wave of genocide that followed the gold rush. Their land eventually was claimed by big timber companies and logged of much of its prime redwood and Douglas fir. While Native people from nearby communities continued to visit the Sinkyone for ceremonies and hunting and gathering, there seemed little chance they would ever regain control of the land.

But after a century and a half of dispossession and more than a decade of effort, a consortium of eleven federally recognized tribes has acquired 3,900 acres of the Sinkyone lands. The purchase, under an innovative conservation easement, will help define what it means for forestland to be “productive,” while creating the nation’s first intertribal wilderness park.

“The importance of this transaction is huge, not only for California Indian people but for environmentalists throughout the world,” says Hawk Rosales, executive director of the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, which purchased the property from the Trust for Public Land and the California State Coastal Conservancy. “This victory should encourage people everywhere who are engaged in similar struggles to protect the environment and Indian cultures.”

Never before have Native people of different tribes established a nonprofit organization to acquire land. Never before has a government agency transferred land to Native people under a conservation easement. And rarely before has an easement tried to specify how forestland might be harvested while preserving old-growth structure and health. “This complicated project was rife with controversy from the outset,” says TPL President Will Rogers. “The transfer of these lands to Indian people is an act of social and environmental justice.”

From Protest to Parkland

The long path from Native protest to Native possession in the Sinkyone began in the 1970s as the pace of logging increased in rural Mendocino County. It was a time of change in the county. Environmentalists, many of them back-to-the-land young people, were intent on saving the last of the county’s old-growth redwoods and on modeling a new relationship to nature. Local Native people–a higher proportion of the population than in any other California county–mourned the destruction of the Sinkyone’s sacred sites and the loss of the forest for traditional hunting, gathering, and ceremonial uses. At Sally Bell Redwood Grove–named for a Sinkyone woman who as a child had watched American soldiers murder her family–protesters climbed trees and blocked bulldozers to slow the timber cut.

In 1985 environmentalists and local Native people won a historic lawsuit to halt the clearcutting. In the wake of what would become known as the Sally Bell lawsuit, TPL stepped in to help cool the flames of conflict by acquiring 7,200 acres of the contested land from Georgia-Pacific Corporation. A little less than half the property–including the coastal strip and the old-growth redwood groves–was soon added to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, which had been established in the 1970s after the first wave of logging protests. It was the remaining land–an upland parcel of second-growth redwood and Douglas fir–that eventually would become the new InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Park.

“For ten years the big question has been what we would do with this upland parcel,” explains Neal Fishman of the California State Coastal Conservancy, which provided a loan for TPL’s purchase of the land. “The Coastal Conservancy’s role has been to negotiate with different interests in Mendocino County. It has taken a long time, but what we’ve got for it is a protective easement on the land and the satisfaction of helping to create this intertribal park.”

Reconciling Production with Protection

That the plan took more than ten years to forge suggests the difficulty of the task. It seemed for a while as though everyone expected something different from the land. Under an agreement between the Coastal Conservancy and Mendocino County, the property was to remain in “productive” use–which many people assumed to mean logging. At the same time, the InterTribal Council was promoting the land to be restored as wilderness where Indian people could conduct ceremonies and harvest traditional medicines and plants.

But over the last decade, the county began to redefine what was meant by “productive.” Ecotourism was becoming more important to the county’s economy. The InterTribal Council also made the case that the land could produce ongoing jobs and job training in restoration ecology for Native Americans, who were disproportionately unemployed in the county. In late 1994 the county board of supervisors voted unanimously to approve the council’s purchase of the land under a restrictive conservation easement. The Lannan Foundation of Los Angeles pledged up to $1.3 million toward the $1.4 million purchase, and the council raised over $100,000 from contributors around the country.

“This project brought Indian peoples, government representatives, and environmentalists together in a healing process,” says TPL Vice President Ted Harrison, who managed the project throughout its ten-year duration. “It’s a process in which a fragile and beautiful landscape will be reclaimed and renewed.”

The innovative easement–a key to the transaction–guarantees public access to the adjoining Sinkyone Wilderness State Park while guiding management of the land to promote old-growth forests. The easement stipulates in detail what a mature redwood and Douglas fir forests should look like: for example, how many trees of what diameter each acre should contain. Until the forest reaches this defined state, it can be thinned only at a rate of less than one percent per year. After the forest reaches maturity–in perhaps forty to eighty years–timber can be harvested in a way that preserves mature density and forest structure.

“This easement isn’t simply to protect open space or to say, ‘Thou shalt never touch this land again,'” notes Laurie Wayburn of the Pacific Forest Trust, which holds the easement. “This document sets out the relationship between people and the land. For the Coastal Conservancy, it protects the values for which the land was acquired. For the InterTribal Council, it is a way to articulate their clear purpose to restore and create a natural balance on the land.” By restricting timber harvest, the easement also decreased the market value of the land, putting it within the council’s reach.

“Protection of this land ensures the continuation of Native culture after all the losses Indian people have suffered,” says the InterTribal Council’s Hawk Rosales. Rosales attributes the success of the effort in part to an unusual degree of cooperation between Native people and their environmental allies. “We were able to work together politically, in fundraising and generating public support for the acquisition, and most important, in insisting on the need to protect this environment,” Rosales says. “The alliance between our communities has forced us all to examine a lot more closely our role as humans in the caretaking and stewardship of the earth.”

Land & People, 1998

William Poole is the TPL’s Associate Director of Public Affairs and a contributing editor of Land & People.