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Agua Caliente: Parks link past, present

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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - About 500 years ago, Cahuilla medicine man Tahquitz was banished from his tribe for practicing black magic.

He went to live in exile in a canyon that bears his name. For the rest of his life he occasionally made his presence known stealing a young girl or practicing some other misdeed. So bad was his reputation that his place of exile became a restricted area where even some latter day Cahuilla tribal members fear to tread.

On New Year's Day, the curse of Tahquitz was finally lifted, at least symbolically, as the 350-member Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians opened the canyon to the public, offering guided tours.

This is the culmination of a decades-long struggle by Agua Caliente to manage and protect the area by turning it into a multi-use tribal park.

Agua Caliente rangers take visitors on four interpretive tours each day that blend history, culture and ecology. Tours begin with a 15-minute video at the newly established visitors center , to provide a brief overview of the legend of Tahquitz and the canyon history.

Agua Caliente ranger Rocky Toyama is a member of a staff of 20 that works to maintain the canyon. Toyama is also one of the few Agua Caliente tribal members to work at the park. He says the 10 rangers and 10 canyon crew members do more than just lead hikes.

"We have to provide security, maintain the trails, perform rescues and first aid. Sometimes we even have to pick up cigarette butts. There's no job too small or large for the staff."

Rangers often perform security and search and rescue operations themselves. Toyama says if the task is too great, they have to call on local law enforcement or the Riverside County Search and Rescue teams to assist. Early this month, a 17-year-old girl fell and broke her leg about half a mile from the trailhead. The rescue was performed by the park staff and required no outside assistance.

On the guided tours the rangers often introduce even lifelong Palm Springs residents to the natural and cultural history of the canyons.

Though the park boasts more than 200 native species of plants, the three-hour, 2-mile interpretive hikes focus on some 15 most important to the tribe.

The narrow canyons are the home to groves of Washington Palms, California's only native palm species and the namesake of Palm Springs, and several other native southwestern plants. Most notable are perhaps the agave and creosote plants found in the area. The agave is the root source of tequila, the famous Mexican liquor. The Cahuilla used it as a food source and was considered a delicacy. The creosote is an incredibly versatile plant that was made into a tea for curing colds and a shampoo for curing dandruff.

The Agua Caliente Band are no strangers to running parks. The tribe has operated the wildly successful Indian Canyon Park since the 1950s when several tribal members started charging admission to the public to hike in a series of tribally owned canyons just west of Palm Springs in the San Jacinto Mountains. Tahquitz Canyon was not part of the original tribal park system.

Agua Caliente sources say these canyons represent the only tribally owned parks in the United States. Their proximity to Palm Springs, a popular winter vacation destination because of mild winter temperatures, has made the parks incredibly popular.

"We get around 100,000 visitors a year to the Indian Canyons. It's really popular with the tourists," said Michael Kelner, environmental resources manager for the tribe.

Perhaps because of the old legends, or simply because of the lack of tribal resources Tahquitz canyon was largely ignored by the tribe.

The Department of the Interior attempted to take the area and Indian Canyons from the tribe in 1922 and sent representatives authorized to pay fair market value for the lands. In a reversal of an often-told, sad story of cash-strapped tribes selling off their land for a quick fix, Agua Caliente valiantly refused this and several other government attempts to acquire the land.

The tribe finally closed the canyon to the public in 1969 after a rock concert when several thousand young hippies decided to squat in the canyon. During the next 30 years, Tahquit Canyon became a popular place for transients and outlaws to hide out. Tribal sources say the area was polluted with trash and graffiti. A test of the stream that formed the canyon revealed high levels of fecal matter. There was an average of a death a year from either overdoses or accidents in the steep terrain.

Three years ago this began to change. After suffering through years of being the poor stepsister to the Indian Canyons, the tribe decided to act. With resources from a downtown Palm Springs casino, the tribe chased the transients out and engaged in a large-scale environmental cleanup. After several meetings, it decided to transform the area into a separate park where the public is admitted for guided tours only.

"We've been selling out about every tour. So far it's really been great," says Tarell McLaren who works in the tribal headquarters.

The tribe has been so successful in managing the parks that early this month it agreed to a historic, cooperative agreement with the federal government regarding management of Indian Canyons, Tahquitz Canyon and the nearby Santa Rosa National Monument. The memorandum of understanding was signed by Agua Caliente, the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service.

This benefits the tribe in several ways. First, the Agua Caliente reservation is a checkerboard design. Under the new agreement the tribe has the right to acquire or manage the public tracts in the middle of the checkerboard.

A major problem in the California environment is the invasion of non-Native plant species. The big problem in the Palm Springs area has been the tamarisk plant, which often sucks up hundreds of gallons of water in an arid area and drains vital resources from the native desert plants.

The tribe has long tried to eradicate the pesky tamarisk plant. They would often eradicate the weed from their own lands but the wily weed often re-established itself because the tribe lacked the authority to eradicate it from neighboring federal lands.

Kelner says this agreement allows the tribe greater access to manage the parks. He feels the federal government's "leave it alone" environmental policy is misguided and points out that American Indian tribes from coast to coast had engaged in interactive environmental practices that were mutually beneficial to both land and people.

He said he feels that in ignoring the environmental practices of the American Indians, many of the nation's natural areas have been placed in an unhealthy state. He cites the old Cahuilla practice of diverting streams to water mesquite bushes to create bigger healthier bushes, and thus more food for the tribe as the plant was a traditional food source.

"We want to be able to begin a new era in ecological management by doing it the way the ancestors did."