Redwood Forest in California Is Returned to Native Tribes

Tucked away in Northern California’s Mendocino County, the 523 acres of rugged forest is studded with the ghostlike stumps of ancient redwoods harvested during a logging boom that did away with over 90 percent of the species on the West Coast. But about 200 acres are still dense with old-growth redwoods that were spared from logging.

The land was the hunting, fishing and ceremonial grounds of generations of Indigenous tribes like the Sinkyone, until they were largely driven off by European settlers. On Tuesday, a California nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving and preserving redwoods announced that it was reuniting the land and its original inhabitants.

The group, the Save the Redwoods League, which was able to purchase the forest with corporate donations in 2020, said it was transferring ownership of the 523-acre property to the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a group of 10 native tribes whose ancestors were “ forcibly removed” from the land by European American settlers, according to a statement from the league.

The tribes will serve as guardians of the land in partnership with the Save the Redwoods League, which has been protecting and restoring redwood forests since 1918.

Fundamentally, we believed that the best way to permanently protect and heal this land is through tribal stewardship,” Sam Holder, chief executive of the Save the Redwoods League, said in an interview on Tuesday. “In this process, we have an opportunity to restore balance in the ecosystem and in the communities connected to it.

For over 175 years, members of the tribes represented by the council did not have access to the sacred land they had used for hunting, fishing and ceremonies.

“It is rare when these lands return to the original peoples of those places,” Hawk Rosales, an Indigenous land defender and a former executive director of the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, said in an interview on Tuesday.

“We have an intergenerational commitment and a goal to protect these lands and, in doing so, protecting tribal cultural ways of life and revitalizing them,” he added.

As part of the agreement, the land, known before the purchase as Andersonia West, will be called Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ (pronounced tsih-ih-LEY-duhn), which means “Fish Run Place” in the Sinkyone language.

“Renaming the property Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ lets people know that it’s a sacred place; it’s a place for our Native people,” Crista Ray, a board member of the Sinkyone Council, said in the statement. “It lets them know that there was a language and that there was a people who lived there long before now.”

According to the statement, Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ is a vital addition to conserved lands along the Sinkyone coast, which is about five hours north of San Francisco. The newly acquired land sits west of the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park and north of the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness, another protected area, which was acquired by the Sinkyone Council in 1997.

The council’s goal, Mr. Rosales explained, is to connect and expand the redwood forests in the area, which are ecologically and culturally linked, to repair “components of an ecosystem that has been fragmented and that has been threatenedby colonial settlement.

Redwood trees aren’t the only endangered species in the forest. The land is also home to coho salmon, steelhead trout, marbled murrelets (a small seabird) and northern spotted owls — all listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Since 2006, the Redwoods League had been in conversations with a California logging family who had owned the land for generations. Mr. Holder explained that after years of building a relationship with the family, the league was able to purchase the land in 2020 for $3.55 million. The money for the purchase was donated by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company as part of its program to mitigate environmental damage.

The Redwoods League still retains an easement on the property. “Our goal is to just make sure that we are adding to adding capacity and support for the council as they advance their own stewardship and restoration goals,” Mr. Holder explained.

This is the second time the Save the Redwoods League has donated land to the council. In 2012, it transferred a 164-acre property north of Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ, known as Four Corners, to the Sinkyone.

To Mr. Rosales, the importance of piecing together these culturally important lands is not only the conservation of nature, but also allowing tribes to have a stronger connection with their ancestors.

The descendants of those ancestors are among us today in the member tribes,” Mr. Rosales said. “There are families that trace their lineage to this place, essentially, and the surrounding vicinity. They are connected to their ancestors, and this is a way of reaffirming that.”