Forestry protections increased after PG&E logging damages Maidu site

Published: Thursday, May. 2, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Thursday, May. 2, 2013 - 8:01 am

CHESTER – Recently discovered damage to American Indian archaeological sites has led to increased protections at a controversial logging project in Humbug Valley.

Officials from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection met at the site last week with Maidu Summit representatives following reports that PG&E logging equipment had broken a Maidu Indian grinding stone and compromised a prehistoric village site.

Against the backdrop of a hillside virtually cleared of all timber, PG&E archaeologist James Nelson announced plans to suspend all logging activity until he and state officials can assess the damages and develop a new protection plan for the 368 logged acres in the valley 10 miles southwest of Lake Almanor.

"We don't want to impact a cultural site. We're very concerned about that," Nelson said.

A quick on-the-ground inspection of the area produced numerous obsidian chips and other American Indian artifacts, leading Nelson and Cal Fire officials to immediately expand a buffer area from less than an acre to around 3 acres.

The Maidus welcomed the temporary protections but remained skeptical about the company's commitment to protect the valley it owns.

The timber harvest, started last fall under an emergency permit issued by Cal Fire, has already compromised an ancient trail and a village site more than 4,000 years old, said Beverly Benner Ogle, vice chairwoman of the Maidu Summit, a consortium of Maidu Indian tribal, nonprofit and grass-roots organizations.

Neither she nor other Maidu officials received notice of the logging until after it had started, a violation of state forest practice regulations. PG&E officials have apologized for the breach.

"Somehow the wires got crossed and the notice didn't go out in time," said Dan McCall, a PG&E forester.

The current concern for both the company and the American Indians is protecting the artifacts and archaeological features remaining in the timber harvest area.

Despite the temporary expansion of buffer zones, they do not agree about how to do that permanently.

With the discovery of new sites, the state has a legal obligation to defer all logging activities within at least a 100-foot buffer zone while it conducts another archaeological survey of the area, said Rich Jenkins, a Cal Fire archaeologist.

Members of the Maidu Summit will have an opportunity to review the new protection plan once it has been developed, he said.

But Edwin Wilson, a forester and attorney who has represented the Maidu Summit, called for change that would permanently expand the buffer zones.

As an example of the current inadequacies, Farrell Cunningham cited a house pit at the base of the hillside.

PG&E archaeologists had flagged it for protection but allowed logging within 10 yards, compromising the larger village site that included a grinding rock.

"Maidus did not live in their houses. Their kitchens were 20 yards away and they gathered foods and medicines all over this valley," said Cunningham, chairman of the Maidu Summit.

The village site is now within a flagged buffer area and temporarily protected.

Jenkins, the state archaeologist, noted the difficulty of defining the boundary of any archaeological area.

The archaeologists who flagged them in Humbug Valley followed all forest practice regulations. "We don't make the rules," Nelson said.

Wilson, who frequented Humbug Valley as a child, also questioned the basis for issuing an emergency permit to log, calling it "a fabricated emergency."

PG&E applied for the emergency timber harvest permit following last year's Chips fire, which burned 75,000 acres between the Feather River Canyon and Lake Almanor.

The Humbug Valley hillside was part of an area classified as a low-severity burn, according to Plumas National Forest records.

Firefighters set backfires to ignite the underbrush and reduce the threat of more serious burning.

The damage to cultural sites comes as the Maidu Summit is poised for potential acquisition of Humbug Valley, the only extensive intact area remaining within their ancient homeland.

Humbug is one of nearly 1,000 separate parcels of PG&E lands designated for permanent conservation protection under a 2004 accord reached by the state Public Utilities Commission following the company's bankruptcy reorganization.

The Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council, a private nonprofit group created through the bankruptcy, is evaluating the Maidu Summit's application to assume ownership of the 2,300-acre valley and manage it using traditional American Indian techniques.

The Stewardship Council could make a decision later this year, said Lorena Gorbet, who represents the United Maidu Nation on the Maidu Summit and serves as its secretary/treasurer.

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Read more articles by Jane Braxton Little

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