Maidu group poised to regain ownership of ancestral land

A group of Maidu Indians has succeeded in its quest to be named the official owner of Humbug Valley, a 2,325-acre area in Plumas County that is the last remnant of their once vast homeland still in relatively pristine condition.

The Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council unanimously recommended that the Maidu Summit Consortium hold title “in perpetuity” to the grassy meadow laced by a wild trout stream seven miles southeast of Chester.

The action caps the 10-year Maidu effort to regain ancestral land and use traditional techniques to manage ecosystems that include several endangered and sensitive species.

“I thought this day would never come,” said Lorena Gorbet, secretary of the Maidu Summit. She has been asking the council for land at least twice a year for a decade.

The Stewardship Council’s approval marks the first time ancestral lands in California have been returned to Native American tribes not recognized by the federal government. The nine groups comprising the Maidu Summit include only two that enjoy federal recognition.

The Maidu will work with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop a comprehensive land management plan that includes restoration of forest and meadow habitat as well as Yellow Creek, a state-designated wild trout stream. Earlier this year, the two groups were partners in a project designed to restore wet meadows in Humbug Valley.

Charlton H. Bonham, agency director, was part of that project and has publicly endorsed Maidu ownership of the valley. Humbug Valley presents a historic opportunity to demonstrate how traditional ecological knowledge can complement the modern scientific approach brought by state agencies, he said.

The Maidu Summit and Fish and Wildlife made a compelling argument for a proposal that “epitomizes the collaboration that is a core value of the Stewardship Council,” said Ric Notini, the council’s director of land conservation.

In addition to recommending Maidu ownership, the council named the state wildlife agency and Feather River Land Trust, based in Quincy, as co-holders of a conservation easement overseeing activities that meet the land management goals for conserving Humbug Valley.

Notini also outlined a two-year grant to the Maidu Summit to fund at least two full-time staff positions to help develop the skills required to manage a landscape-scale conservation property, including grant writing.

After the council’s voice vote at its meeting Thursday in Oakland, the 30 Maidu who attended the meeting applauded politely, apparently stunned by the action they had been seeking for so long. By Sunday, however, they were ready to celebrate at a gathering in Chester honoring what Gorbet called “a major turning point in our history.”

Owning Humbug Valley is “exactly what I dreamed about as a child,” said Ken Holbrook, the Maidu Summit’s executive director. “Something pulled the people together to give us this historic opportunity to build ourselves as an organization and develop our natural resources.”

The day of drumming, singing and congratulations was capped by honoring Beverly Benner Ogle, a published historian and relentless advocate for the valley, where she spent time as a child with her parents and grandparents.

Ogle was presented with a Maidu bow given for great achievements in land stewardship. She is said to be the first woman in history to receive this honor.

“This gives me the urge to go out and tell the valley – the forest, the birds and the meadow – that Humbug Valley is once again Maidu land,” Ogle said.

The Stewardship Council’s recommendations must be approved by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., current owner of Humbug Valley.

The valley is one of nearly 1,000 parcels owned by the company that were permanently preserved for conservation under a 2003 bankruptcy settlement between PG&E and the Public Utilities Commission. A total of 140,000 acres stretching across 22 California counties are involved in the accord, hailed as one of the state’s biggest conservation deals in decades.

Since 2004, the Stewardship Council, a private nonprofit group, has been reviewing ownership applications from groups as diverse as the Maidu Summit and the federal Bureau of Land Management.

More than half the acreage will stay under PG&E management to facilitate existing hydroelectric power operations, said Allene Zanger, Stewardship Council executive director. The council has recommended new owners for around 30,000 acres and expects to make recommendations for the rest of the utility-owned land by the middle of next year, Notini said.