Return to Humbug Valley

An unlikely partnership leads to the Mountain Maidu reclaiming a piece of their ancestral homeland

The rich natural resources of Humbug Valley include a carbonated spring, wet meadow, timbered hillsides and Yellow Creek, a state-designated wild trout stream. In early summer the valley abounds with wild flowers.

The rich natural resources of Humbug Valley include a carbonated spring, wet meadow, timbered hillsides and Yellow Creek, a state-designated wild trout stream. In early summer the valley abounds with wild flowers.

PHOTO by Jane Braxton Little

Maidu connection: Visit to learn more about the Maidu Summit Consortium.
About the author: Jane Braxton Little, an independent journalist based in Plumas County, writes about science and natural resources for publications that include Scientific American, The Daily Climate, Environmental Health Perspectives, and Audubon, where she is a contributing editor.

Maidu Indians believe Humbug Valley is the place chosen for them by the great spirits of the elders who came before them. For Beverly Benner Ogle, it’s gospel. A genial woman who often wears a red-shafted flicker feather in her gray-streaked hair, Ogle’s dark eyes turn wistful when she speaks of Humbug Valley. “Our people were put here to take care of this land. It’s home,” she said.

Today, more than 150 years after they lost this homeland, Mountain Maidu Indians, through the efforts of nine grassroots organizations forming the Maidu Summit Consortium, are poised to return as caretakers of the spacious grassy meadow rimmed by the granite peaks of the northern Sierra Nevada. Here—on the banks of Yellow Creek, on the hillsides scattered with ancient village sites—they are launching a land management plan that combines burning, pruning and other time-honored Maidu practices with the latest scientific technology.

Their return is more than a repatriation to redress past wrongs. As the Maidu initiate long-term restoration of the recently clearcut hillsides, the wild trout fishery too diseased to support native species, the thistle-filled meadow—as they return traditional land management to the land of their ancestors, they will work side-by-side with conservation biologists and GIS specialists.

The very agencies and organizations the Maidu once considered their adversaries have become their partners. What is evolving on this site 50 miles northeast of Chico is by all accounts an experiment. It aims to combine millennia of traditional ecological knowledge with Western science to conserve both natural and cultural resources at a landscape scale. The Humbug Valley partnership could provide a national model for other Native American tribes, and it has ramifications for non-native land managers as well.

Beverly Ogle and her family erected this rock at the entrance to Humbug Valley welcoming all to the Maidu historic homeland.

PHOTO by Jane Braxton Little

“This is a historic opportunity for all of us to learn from each other,” said Charlton H. Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Ogle, 73, has been working most of her life to return Humbug to Maidu people. As a child, she made many visits to the Plumas County valley seven miles southeast of Lake Almanor, tagging along as her grandmother gathered plants and worshipped in the valley where she was born. Later, during four summers as host at a campground on Yellow Creek, Ogle used her free time to write two books and a manuscript about Maidu history.

Crouched beside a cluster of grinding stones one day last summer, she recounted her grandmother’s memory of her grandmothers working seeds with stone pestles, gossiping as children frolicked in the tall timothy at the edge of the valley. Across the valley, Ogle picked her way over a carpet of pine and fir needles to a forest opening where water bubbles out of the ground. Settling onto a granite boulder, eyes closed, she listened to the wind soughing through the tops of old-growth trees. A mallard glided into the pool beyond the spring, leading seven fluffy chicks.

“For 30 or 40 years, I felt like the lone steward of Humbug Valley,” Ogle said.

The opportunity to realize her dream arrived suddenly on the improbable wings of corporate bankruptcy. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the utility giant that owns Humbug Valley, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2001 following an energy crisis that caused rolling blackouts and contributed to the company’s $9 billion debt. Three years later, a deal forged by the state Public Utilities Commission and a host of conservation groups permanently protected 140,000 acres of PG&E land for habitat, open space and public recreation. The lands came under the control of the Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council, formed to decide the future of the more than 1,000 parcels. Humbug Valley is one of them (see sidebar).

Beverly Benner Ogle, vice chair of the Maidu Summit, holds a Maidu bow of yew presented for great achievements in land stewardship.

PHOTO by Jane Braxton Little

Ogle showed up at the Stewardship Council’s first site meeting, held in Chester. So did Lorena Gorbet, then coordinator of the Maidu Cultural and Development Group. When she spoke, it was for Ogle and all the other Maidu who longed for their homeland. “I’m here to request land,” Gorbet told the council. “This is an opportunity for you to right a past wrong.”

In November, nearly a decade later, the Stewardship Council unanimously recommended that the Maidu Summit Consortium hold title to Humbug Valley “in perpetuity.” The real estate transaction must still be negotiated with PG&E. If it is finalized, as is widely expected, the acquisition will be the first time in California history that a federally unrecognized tribe has had ancestral lands returned.

Mountain Maidu have lived in the Feather River region for millennia, tending the forests and meadows of what is now northeastern California. They cultivated oaks, encouraging low branches and big bushy heads to produce acorns, the mainstay of their diet. They farmed camas bulbs for food, harvested wormwood for medicines, and pruned willows and maples for basket materials. It was the forest understory, not the towering pines and firs, that provided the Maidu people with the necessities of life.

When Europeans arrived with the Gold Rush, the Maidu were forced off their primary gathering sites. Early in the 20th century, power companies recognized the economic potential of the Feather River and its tributaries. The dams they built to direct water into their hydroelectric turbines flooded the lush meadows of the Maidu homelands, creating Lake Almanor and Walker Lake. Most Maidu retreated into a century of hostility, bitter over the loss of land and, gradually, their language and culture. Today, the tribe is a scattered collection of Rancherias and family clans largely landless and unrecognized by the federal government.

The early dam builders acquired Humbug Valley, too, and held it in reserve for a reservoir. Over the decades, PG&E leased the meadow to cattle ranchers for summer grazing, opened a public campground along Yellow Creek and stocked the stream with non-native German brown trout. But Humbug Valley was never flooded. When the 2,300-acre valley appeared on the Stewardship Council’s list of PG&E parcels to be donated to new owners, the Mountain Maidu jumped at the opportunity to acquire the largest portion of their still relatively pristine homeland.

Lorena Gorbet has been asking the Stewardship Council for land since 2004. The Maidu Summit is now poised to receive title to Humbug Valley.

PHOTO by Jane Braxton Little

The late Farrell Cunningham, then Maidu Summit Consortium chairman, joined Ogle and Gorbet at that first council meeting in 2004. He minced no words in demanding the return of land to the Maidu: “We were here. We are here. And we will always be here. This is our home.”

Ogle and her family had already formed the Tasmam Koyom Cultural Foundation to protect Humbug Valley. They began working with other grassroots and tribal organizations through the nonprofit Maidu Summit. Although they had often been at odds with one another, these leaders set aside ancient feuds and past disputes over territory and diminishing pots of government funding. Something was pulling them together, said Ken Holbrook, recently appointed Maidu Summit executive director. The Maidu began drafting a plan to manage Humbug Valley as part of their application for ownership. To pull it off, they knew they would need money. And partners.

Despite their historic misgivings, Maidus have worked at several partnerships with what many still call “the dominant culture.” In 1998, Congress chose their proposal to demonstrate traditional stewardship techniques as one of 28 stewardship pilot projects testing experimental management techniques on federal land. The Plumas and Lassen national forests became the first place in the nation where Native Americans began applying these methods to national forest land. While Maidu crews were able to thin trees along a state highway and transplant some grey willows for basket making, the project bogged down in a combination of poor communication and bureaucratic turnover and only recently resumed.

In 2011, the Maidu Summit formed a partnership with Plumas Audubon Society and the Feather River Land Trust to plan restoration of parts of the Heart K Ranch, historically Maidu territory now owned by the land trust based in Quincy. The goal is to apply the best scientific and cultural knowledge to conserving willow flycatcher and other important habitats, said trust Executive Director Paul Hardy.

Like the Forest Service partnership, the Heart K project bared deep cultural and language differences almost immediately, said Trina Cunningham, Farrell’s sister, who is pursuing a degree in physical geography and planning at Chico State to contribute to her work as a Maidu. Western science approaches restoration projects with template in hand and a “let’s go” attitude, she said. For Maidus, the process involves knowing patterns of migration, nesting cycles, seasonal wildlife impacts—the whole ebb and flow of a particular piece of land. The language and policy barriers between science and Maidu ecological tradition were stark, said Cunningham, “way deeper than vocabulary.”

Maidu women used rocks in the valley floor to grind acorns into a powder for stew. They are among the archaeological and sacred sites to be protected under Maidu Summit ownership.

PHOTO by Jane Braxton Little

Knowing that, however, has been valuable. “What we discovered was far more important than what we said we would discover,” she said. And that knowledge paid dividends as the Maidu Summit worked to prove its worth to the Stewardship Council. The group completed a 74-page management plan, and constructed an ethnographic background and record of lands allotted to Maidu. Its members did a botanical study and identified archaeological sites in Humbug Valley. And they attended meeting after Stewardship Council meeting, always repeating their simple request for land.

But the Maidu Summit was not the only organization interested in owning Humbug Valley. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife filed a competing application to make it the 111th wildlife area under its management. That plan emphasized Yellow Creek’s trophy brown trout, a species planted years earlier that had become popular among anglers. It included thinning the forest to promote deer foraging, which would involve logging some larger trees. The department was also considering reintroducing cattle grazing, discontinued in 2001 by PG&E.

Farrell Cunningham was appalled by the prospect of cattle in Humbug Valley. He and other Maidu wanted to rid the valley of all non-native species, including brown trout. But vying against a state agency with a $550 million annual budget seemed like David versus Goliath, said Ogle.

The competing ownership applications brought the Maidu in close contact with state wildlife officials, often in the valley to inspect Yellow Creek and tromp about the hillsides. Although they had very different views of how to conserve the natural resources, the competitors began to realize they had interests in common beyond holding title to the valley. The tone of the meetings began to shift, said Ogle. Department scientists asked more questions and listened more closely. So did Cunningham and Ogle.

The focus for both groups became restoring Yellow Creek, a state-designated wild trout stream. To rid it of whirling disease and the non-native species that had taken over the fishery, department officials believed the only feasible path to success would be to use chemicals, said Tina Bartlett, a Fish and Wildlife regional manager. Using poison was anathema to the Maidu. They wanted to let the stream heal itself and were willing to wait the decades it might take. That was less than ideal for the agency. As the competing parties talked and weighed one another’s objectives, they collectively came up with a third way: finding another strain of native trout immune to the whirling disease parasite. Bartlett immediately realized this was something the department should try.

Brothers Calvin and Vance Hedrick perform Maidu songs of celebration following recommended acquisition of Humbug Valley.

PHOTO by Jane Braxton Little

Gradually, over time, a notion began to take shape among state wildlife officials. “Maybe we didn’t need title to the land. Maybe we could accomplish our goals as a partner,” Bartlett said. As each group slowly gained confidence in the other, the agency made a decision: It withdrew its application for ownership of Humbug Valley and instead endorsed the Maidu application. “It was just the right thing to do,” said Bartlett.

The Maidu were taking a risk with an agency they had not had success with in the past, but a newfound trust had grown. The Maidu Summit and the wildlife department made a compelling argument to the Stewardship Council for a proposal that epitomizes collaboration, one of the council’s primary goals, said Ric Notini, the Stewardship Council’s director of land conservation: “It’s a new model for how a Native American tribe can acquire land and manage it.”

Other partnerships evolved as well. Relations between the Maidu Summit and PG&E were even more strained than with the wildlife department. Simmering resentment over the utility company’s management of Humbug Valley boiled over late in 2012, when PG&E all but clearcut the slopes above a soda spring considered sacred by the Maidu. The company claimed the trees were fire damaged and would die, but the Maidu claimed foul. They cited village sites and grinding stones damaged or destroyed by the logging.

Despite the hostility, PG&E officials recently invited Maidu Summit leaders to confer with them over replanting the 218-acre hillside. They asked for input on what conifer species they would prefer and in what ratio. Knowing that Maidu have traditionally depended on elderberry, chokecherry and other understory species, PG&E officials also asked where to plant these species. It was a symbolic olive branch, said Holbrook: “They had no obligation to do that. Typically, PG&E goes a different route. This was a very exciting gesture recognizing that we will own the land.”

Although the Maidu Summit has earned widespread support during its drawn-out quest to acquire Humbug Valley, the process is far from complete. Still ahead is negotiating the real estate transaction with PG&E, which involves approval by the Public Utilities Commission.

That could take more than two years, said Notini. The partners must also complete a final management plan, which will determine the long-term future of the valley’s natural resources. Once the plan has been approved, the Maidu Summit will have to comply with the terms of a conservation easement. Like other PG&E parcels deeded to new owners, the easement will forbid subdivisions, road building, mining and other development that would conflict with natural resource conservation. It will require public access. The Stewardship Council has recommended that the state wildlife department and Feather River Land Trust hold the easement and monitor the Maidu Summit’s compliance.

Even once all these bureaucratic steps have been completed, no one expects the Maidu Summit to ride off into Humbug Valley and live happily ever after. Land management takes money and the ability to raise money, noted Notini.

The Stewardship Council has proposed several grants to the consortium to bolster its organizational experience and development. The agencies have a stake in the long-term success of the partnership, said Holbrook. They now have a vested interest in this model of managing land from a different point of view—one that considers time in terms of centuries and values the infinite cycles of nature. “That’s the magic of Humbug Valley,” he said.

A few days after the Stewardship Council’s unanimous vote on Humbug Valley, the Maidu gathered in Chester for a celebration of drumming, singing and prayer. Ogle, surrounded by friends, children and grandchildren, wore an elaborate beaded barrette in her hair. The crowd quieted while she was presented with a traditional Maidu bow, an honor bestowed on a person who has achieved great accomplishments in caring for the land. Ogle, the first woman to receive the bow, was clearly stunned.

“I have always walked in the footsteps of my people,” she said. “We are warriors. We did not give up. Now I can proudly tell them that Humbug Valley is once again Maidu land.”