Indigenous people demonstrate against plans to chop redwoods in a forest in Northern California.

Native peoples and their supporters oppose Cal Fire’s intentions to log the state’s largest state-owned forest.

Hundreds of demonstrators and environmental groups gathered at California’s state capitol late last month. Indigenous artists danced, and others yelled in protest against the Jackson Demonstration State Forest’s redwood harvesting.

What was their rallying cry? “Restore Pomo land.” It was a sight that was all too familiar to Priscilla Hunter. As a senior member of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians, this was not her first time rallying at the capitol’s steps.

However, she stated that this time seemed more intimate than before. Mendocino County’s Jackson Demonstration State Forest is located within the boundaries of her ancestral property.

“It’s right here in our backyard,” she explained. It is the state’s biggest forest, covering 48,652 acres. It is mostly composed of coastal redwoods and forms a substantial portion of the Pomo people’s territory, which runs the length of Northern California’s coast.

For months, protestors have gathered and even camped out in this State Forest, attempting to halt the cutting of these redwoods by California’s fire department, Cal Fire.

According to Kevin Conway, Cal Fire’s State Forests Program Manager, these protests considerably delayed the agency’s management plans for the area in 2021.

Protesters say that these trees are especially significant. Redwoods absorb a significant amount of carbon, making them an asset in the fight against climate change.

Additionally, they argue that the trees must be conserved, as the state’s priceless old-growth redwoods were cut extensively throughout the twentieth century.

It’s a well-known story — environmentalists stand in the line of loggers, preventing the destruction of trees. However, the importance of these redwoods extends beyond this for Indigenous populations.

According to Priscilla Hunter, her tribe wishes to protect culturally significant areas such as the Jackson Demonstration State Forest.

“By down trees and developing timber collection plans, they harm our sacred locations,” she stated. “There are several religious places on those mountains…but they are not protected.”

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Advocacy for the redwoods

Protests in Northern California woods date back decades. Throughout the 1990s, activists spent months fighting the harvesting of old-growth redwoods, a period now known as the Timber Wars.

Conway of Cal Fire stated that these demonstrations altered his agency’s intentions for Jackson Demonstration State Forest, which it has maintained since 1947. Between 2001 and 2008, logging was halted in response to the protests.

After 2008, logging was restarted, although Conway notes that Cal Fire limited its use of clear-cutting and placed a premium on the regeneration of elder redwoods.

The government has established safeguards for specific parts of old growth and aims to manage the development of additional regions into old growth in the future.

“It demonstrated to Cal Fire how critical it was to grow these larger trees there sustainably or increase the number of old growth’s asides’ that exist,” he added.

However, Indigenous voices are leading the push to safeguard redwoods this time. According to Michael Hunter, Priscilla’s son and head of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians, the Pomo people’s history is inextricably linked to the forest’s existence.

“They lived there for thousands of years and died there — they became dirt,” he explained.

Conway stated that consultations between Cal Fire and the tribe began in April last year. They examined ongoing wood harvesting plans that included tribal cultural sites and considered how such areas might be protected.

According to Priscilla Hunter, these places are frequently associated with areas where ancient Pomo communities formerly stood and where cultural items can be discovered.

She stated her opposition to how Cal Fire defined these locations’ boundaries throughout these meetings. She stated that their definitions are frequently excessively restrictive. Her ancestral territories were vast, unconstrained by rigid boundaries.

“They make it as little as possible to avoid protecting the entire structure,” she explained. “They take them village by village — they don’t believe we’re all one giant community.”

Conway stated that these discussions have already prompted Cal Fire authorities to reconsider their approach to cultural resources located in the woods. He asserts that conventional assessment methods might be “clinical” at times, something the tribe frequently contested.

“They truly infused it with a human aspect,” he explained. “As a result of it, we’ve held discussions regarding further safeguards that would be implemented along with the locations.”

Since protests in Jackson Demonstration State Forest intensified last year, supporters have gathered behind the slogan “Pomo Land Back” to emphasize the area’s need for tribal control.

However, the tribe’s activities began before this fight. Priscilla Hunter and other tribe leaders created the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council in 1986 to safeguard their ancestral lands in Northern California from clearcut logging. Since that time, the council has purchased almost 4,000 acres of property.

“I’ve seen that [collaborating] is the only way to organize and obtain that land,” she explained.

Previously, tribal and state administrations collaborated to administer territories in other states. However, Conway stated that this strategy is still relatively new in California.

He has witnessed previous collaborations between state parks and tribes on projects.

“However, I’m not aware of any official co-management of a whole property,” he remarked.

A fundamental difference of opinion

Since February 1, logging in Jackson Demonstration State Forest has been halted while Cal Fire officials undertake an annual census of the area’s spotted owl nesting population. Protesters are calling for a temporary halt to logging in the region.

Typically, the survey is finished between mid-and late April; logging can resume.

Conway indicated that there would likely be no logging in the “Caspar 500” — a tract of woodland near the town of Caspar that served as a focal point for demonstrators – until after a May 2 advisory group meeting.

He stated that the discussion will focus on community concerns and will certainly result in some adjustments to how Cal Fire manages this region.

While Cal Fire has logged this region for years, Conway believes the agency’s attempts to log sections such as the “Caspar 500” on the western side of the forest, located near cities such as Mendocino and Caspar, garnered community attention.

“We have not harvested consistently on the western boundary of our forest, anticipating that we might come into some of these societal problems,” he explained. “What astonished us was their breadth and depth.”

Conway stated that Cal Fire has conducted community outreach and attempted to reach out to demonstrators. However, the point of contention here is their managerial technique.

“There is a fundamental policy debate among some parts of the community over the management of public lands through commercial logging,” he explained.

Conway stated that one of Cal Fire’s primary objectives is to evaluate the trade-offs between commodities production and resource protection.

“And therefore, utilizing commercial timber management methods, which are identical to those accessible to private landowners, is a critical component of it,” he explained.

On Wednesday, Michael Hunter met with California Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot. They addressed the prospect of a logging ban in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest.

While no moratorium has been established, Hunter sees this dialogue as the first step in reevaluating the State Forest’s management.

“We will be able to rework the forest management plan completely,” he explained. “And if that occurs, it will serve as a precedent for all other state forests.”