Maidu Stewardship Project

Posted: Jul 3, 2006
Written by: 
Jane Braxton Little

Plumas and Lassen National Forests, Greenville, California

Objective: To demonstrate traditional Mountain Maidu forest management techniques that restore whole ecosystems, to protect culturally significant sites and reconnect both Maidu and Anglo communities to the land.

Participants: US Forest Service, Maidu Cultural & Development Center, United Maidu Nation, Maidu Elders Council, Roundhouse Council, Indian American Legion, Forest Community Research, Greenville Rancheria, Plumas County Indians, Inc., Indian Head Logging, Inc.

History: Centuries before the U.S. Forest Service was created, Mountain Maidu Indians were tending the forests of what is now northeastern California. They cultivated oaks, encouraging low branches and big bushy heads to produce acorns, the mainstay of their diet. They farmed camas bulbs for food, harvested wormwood for medicines, and pruned willows and maples for basket materials. It was the forest understory, not the towering pines and firs, which provided the Maidu people with the necessities of their lives.

When Europeans arrived in the mid-nineteenth century, the Maidu were forced off their primary gathering sites. Gradually they gave up their traditional lifestyle. The lands they had managed became the Plumas and Lassen national forests, which emphasized timber production. The Maidu were left without a functional land base or federal recognition as a tribe. They did not, however, forget their traditions or give up their commitment to protecting the land. In 1995, the Mountain Maidu formed the Maidu Cultural and Development Group, a non-profit corporation, to coordinate a variety of activities aimed at recognizing the Maidus' role as land stewards.

The most ambitious activity is a plan to demonstrate traditional Maidu forest management techniques on 2,100 acres of national forest land. After years of cautious petitions to the Forest Service, in 1998 Congress chose the group's proposal as one of 28 stewardship pilot projects testing experimental management techniques. It was the first place in the nation where American Indians began applying traditional stewardship methods to national forest land.

Accomplishments: Work on the ground began in 2004 on 36 acres of the Plumas National Forest. Maidu crews thinned trees along a 150-foot corridor between a state highway and a campground, which the Maidu group manages. The work improves the overstocked forest and reduces the threat of wildfire to the nearby community of Greenville.

Maidu crews have also transplanted gray willows, eradicated noxious weeds, and begun the long-term management of bear grass in an area where they have traditionally gathered materials for basket making. They developed a GPS inventory of the plants and wildlife habitat on 1,500 acres and selected sites to monitor with other partners throughout the project's first 10-year phase.

The partnership with the Forest Service has involved a plethora of reports previously unfamiliar to the Maidu. Agency officials have helped them respond to these bureaucratic requirements. The Maidu Group now issues contracts and sub-contracts, and is running a successful business. The process has had a comparable impact on the Forest Service, introducing officials to unfamiliar management techniques and a vision of the natural world not taught in forestry or business schools. Managing holistic ecosystems represents a paradigm shift from diameter-at-breast-height evaluations.

Along with the Forest Service, the Maidu stewardship project has spawned a partnership with Feather River College, where Maidu are teaching traditional land management techniques and how various plants respond to fire. The Maidu Cultural and Development Group has also developed affiliations with two University of California campuses and a cultural exchange with several indigenous tribes in Mexico. In 2004, three California Maidu Indians visited a village and various pre-European-contact forest sites in Baja, California. The trip resulted in a documentary film entitled "Hamondim Maka," which means "Where Are We."

Lorena Gorbet at the base of Keddie Ridge in the forest stewardship project.
Photo by Jane Braxton Little

The non-profit Maidu development corporation, which was created for the Forest Service partnership, has strengthened both Anglo and Native American understanding of the tribe's historical presence. The corporation also has emboldened Maidu people to new pursuits. Among them is a map listing Maidu names for local geographic features, a 20-page guide to important mythical and cultural landmarks, and Maidu language classes. The tribe is also petitioning for redress of century-old parcel acquisitions that left it landless and federally unrecognized.

Challenges/constraints: The cultural gulf that initially separated the Forest Service and Mountain Maidu continues to be a challenge for both groups. Maidu people are frustrated by the personnel turnover among their federal partners. Agency officials find that the Maidu response to contract and reporting requirements sometimes thwarts their official timelines.

Even when the new partners communicate in English, they often speak a different language. Agency officials talk of written objectives, formal business plans, and budgets. The Maidu depend on less-bureaucratic tools, insisting they must talk to the trees and wildlife to see what changes they want and need over long periods of time.

Discussions launched in 1998 dragged out over several years while the partners tried to understand and trust one another. As with language, they approached forest management with diametrically different concepts of time. The Maidus' initial proposal involved a 99-year demonstration — an eternity to an agency that gets its funding on a year-by-year basis.

The deliberate pace of their talks had its advantages. The Maidus proposed using fire, a mainstay of their traditional management practices, to reduce the underbrush and maintain the mix of plant and animal species they value. Initially reluctant, local Forest Service officials were eventually spurred into acceptance by national fire policies introduced during their deliberations with the Maidus. The pace may also have helped the Maidus develop the skills they needed to contract crews, comply with agency reporting requirements, and generally run a successful business.

Despite these advantages, the Maidus remain frustrated with the pace of their progress on the stewardship project as they watch the 2006 logging season wane. Logging has been halted since 2004. The Maidus blame personnel changes within the Forest Service and repeated agency-proposed alterations to the contract that governs their on-the-ground work.

Plumas Forest officials share the Maidus' frustration. Stewardship contracting was new for the agency in 1999, and the original contract required more personnel than the agency had available. The new contract uses a more efficient process and allows payments for the timber to be reinvested in the land locally. The Maidus will use their traditional forest values to select trees for harvest. The money they pay for these federally owned trees will be held for future Maidu stewardship projects. They are optimistic that work will resume later in 2006.

Both the Maidus and government officials have handled the delays with patience and respect — traits they have developed during their drawn-out negotiations. Even with the discouraging work pace, they credit one another with remaining faithful to the stewardship project.

While they wait for forest work to resume, the Maidus are focusing on larger watershed issues. A contract with Plumas County is helping them follow hydroelectric dam relicensing and other legal processes that could affect cultural and spiritual resources on their ancestral lands. The Maidus are also coordinating an education program, which will explain these and other watershed issues to Maidu groups and the general community.

For more information see:

U.S Forest Service Success Story

Forest Magazine Article
Copyright © 2018 Red Lodge Clearinghouse. All rights reserved.