Tradition and conservation meet at a fork in the river
On the River Fork Ranch, bald eagles nest in a pair of cottonwoods as Jobs Peak rises in the distance. Just beyond, cattle graze on a century-old ranch, where they’re raised much as they were 100 years ago. Nearby, the forks of the east and west Carson River come together at valley lowlands. In the summer, the river and this land play host to about 100 species of birds—sandhill cranes, egrets, owls, tri-colored blackbirds—and species with dangerously low numbers, like the northern leopard frog and western pond turtle.
The Nature Conservancy bought this 805-acre land, which sits on a floodplain, 11 years ago. About half of it is still a working cattle and sheep ranch.
“It has some of the best wetlands, streamside and river habitat in the area,” says Duane Petite, Carson River project director for the Nature Conservancy. “It’s one of the prime places where it all comes together.”
For centuries, the Washoe Tribe has thought so, too. They’ve historically come to this spot to gather native plants like willow and tulle for basketweaving, hunting, medicine and other traditional uses. Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Darrel Cruz, who uses willow for fish traps, says one of the tribe’s most important medicinal plants is on this land. He declines to identify it, as the tribe keeps such information close to them.
“This is just another place we can have access,” says Cruz. “A lot of our places have been fenced off, ’dozed over, there’s developments there. This place we can still use. The hope is in keeping these places open, we can pass this on to the next generation.”
The Nature Conservancy and the tribe already had an informal understanding that tribal members could continue to gather native plants here for traditional uses. But plans are now underway to do more restoration work and trailbuilding this year. And the Whit Hall Interpretive Center, which sits on the property in a newly remodeled farm house and has been used to host students, will soon be more broadly opened to the public. Interpretive signage about the ecological and cultural habitat will also be installed. So it seemed like a good time to formalize the tribe and the conservancy’s agreement.
“Tribal elders aren’t abusive of the land at all,” says Petite. “Often, the way they select the plants enhances the plant community.”
Plans for the property and interpretive center include a cultural and environmental education component.
“Our environmental education program is really about trying to get people to connect with the natural world,” says Petite. “A lot of young people—Washoe and non-Washoe—would have a hard time identifying five different native plants and birds, but if you sat them down in front of a bunch of corporate logos, they could identify them very quickly.”
“Once you open their eyes, they’re more likely to want to protect it,” says Cruz.
When property is bought by the Nature Conservancy, it can never be developed, so native people and non-natives will be able to come here for generations and learn about the present ecology, cultural history and how the Washoe tribe continues those traditions today.
“We’re not gone,” says Cruz of the Washoe people. “We’re still a living population that uses the land.”