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Mewuks maintaining forests while preserving historic sites

WEST POINT (MCT) – After 160 years, Mewuks are again maintaining meadows in the forests above West Point.

The historic moment came this week, when a five-man Mewuk forestry crew began clearing away conifers that have in the past century been crowding out the black oaks and other plants the Mewuks once used for food and tools. Stanislaus National Forest officials want to thin fuels that could cause a catastrophic fire and to improve the health and plant diversity of the meadows – but without drawing attention to former American Indian village sites in a way that could lead to further looting.

“If we don’t do it, no one else is going to do it,” said Steven Herman, 39, the crew’s foreman.

Conventional programs to thin forests put archeological sites at risk.

Because the sites are typically excluded from logging to prevent damage by heavy equipment, it was easy after a thinning operation for looters to find the single remaining patch of dense forest.

At the same time, the Calaveras Healthy Impact Product Solutions job training program had created a corps of workers with the skills to thin forests and chip the resulting debris. And it happens that many of those trained in the West Point-based program are Mewuk.

Forest officials say the workers are the perfect match for their efforts to protect the meadows and restore the plant diversity that flourished there before the massive population shift triggered by the California Gold Rush.

“We don’t have that out there right now,” Stanislaus National Forest archaeologist Barbara Balen said of the open, oak-studded meadows whose diverse plant life and heavy grass and acorn production supported the large game populations that gold seekers encountered when they arrived in the late 1840s.

The idea that forest managers should at least consider American Indian management practices is not new. Balen said that in the 1970s, members of a Mewuk band in Tuolumne County began educating Stanislaus forestry staff, including Balen, about the presence of plant species that American Indians managed for use as food, medicine and construction materials.

In the 1980s, tribal representatives began pressuring forest officials to cut back on the use of herbicides that damaged those plants.

Also, there are American Indian nonprofit organizations such as the Stockton-based Shadowbird that own and manage wildlife preserves.

But the work at the former Mewuk village sites in Calaveras County appears to be taking such efforts to a new level.

“You won’t see anywhere in the Sierra a Native crew working the sites in this way,” said Steve Wilensky, who sits on the board of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy and who also is the elected Calaveras County supervisor representing West Point.

Archaeologists have variously estimated that American Indians actively occupied this area of the Sierra Nevada for at least 500 years and possibly thousands of years; and though the people arriving for the Gold Rush didn’t recognize it, archaeologists say those American Indians actively managed the landscape, including through the use of frequent deliberately-set fires to keep meadows open.

Alex Roessler, a member of the board of Shadowbird, said the Albert Bierstadt painting of Yosemite Valley on display in Stockton’s Haggin Museum shows the open, parklike oak forests maintained before the Gold Rush by Central Sierra tribes.

Yet efforts to resume the use of American Indian management sometimes meets resistance from those who mistakenly believe that the “wilderness” settlers encountered in the 1840s was an unmanaged wildland, Roessler and others said.

“The idea of tree huggers to put a fence around it and keep everybody out is not really a good environmental practice.”

Roessler said the Stanislaus Forest project is just one of many instances in which American Indian methods have begun to come back into use in recent years.

Among the benefits of more active, traditional management: The restored meadows will have higher water tables and store more water, releasing it slowly through the year and thus benefitting people in distant cities such as Stockton and Oakland whose drinking water drains from the Sierra Nevada, Balen said.

Balen and Wilensky said that in addition to the 300 acres of American Indian archeological sites identified for rehabilitation within the Stanislaus National Forest, leaders in the Eldorado National Forest immediately to the north are now also evaluating sites for which the forest may award maintenance contracts.

And while the chance to bid on such jobs is welcome, members of the Mewuk crew in Calaveras County say they hope their work will go farther and inspire others across the nation.

“This crew will probably benefit everyone else to get Native crews,” said 27-year-old crew member George Williams III.

He’s happy to be working to undo some of the damage from the past century and a half. “Knowing that these sites are going to be protected, we feel better about it.”

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