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Know the West

Saving Maidu culture, one seedling at a time


It was just a family jaunt, Lorena Gorbet says — a day trip to Soda Rock, where mineral water fizzes out of limestone clefts into a tributary of northeastern California's Feather River.

Gorbet, a Mountain Maidu Indian, gathered her children at the base of the rock, a Maidu cultural landmark. She told them about the bubbling pools where her grandmothers and their grandmothers before them soaked in the healing waters. The pools are gone, she explained, destroyed by a mining operation.

One young son, bewildered, asked why she had let that happen. "It gave me goose bumps," she says. "Was there any way I could have stopped it?" On that day, 20 years ago, Gorbet vowed to protect the Maidu culture.

Today, she coordinates an ambitious project to demonstrate Maidu forest-management techniques on 2,100 acres of the Plumas National Forest. The Maidu Stewardship Project focuses on the understory of the forest, the oaks, shrubs and flowering plants that have traditionally provided the necessities of Maidu life. It is the first place in the nation where Native Americans have begun applying traditional stewardship methods to national forest land.

The project, chosen by Congress in 1998 as one of 28 plans testing alternative forest-management techniques, required two years' worth of environmental assessments to secure approval from the Forest Service; work in the forest finally began last year. Maidu teams transplanted edible brodiaea and camas bulbs, along with dozens of the gray willows used in making baskets. They began pruning the oaks, encouraging the low limbs and busy branches to produce acorns, the mainstay of their traditional diet. Crews also pulled weeds and thinned a stand of mixed conifers. This spring, they will light low-intensity burns to imitate natural fire.

On a recent day, Gorbet walks carefully across a snow-patched meadow. A willow waves beside a rivulet, its tips swelling with new life. Under the trees beyond the meadow, where the crews cut and sold small-diameter pines last summer to help fund the project, tiny oak seedlings sprout.

Gorbet views the response of the landscape as part of a continuing conversation. "The plants and animals — they're our relatives. We talk to them to find out what they need."

It's a language the roughly 2,000 Mountain Maidus have had trouble interpreting for others. Gorbet has learned to speak "Forest Service," she says, and her translations of Maidu thinking have helped the two groups communicate. But the stewardship partners also approach forest management with diametrically different concepts of time. The Maidus' initial proposal involved 1 99-year demonstration — an eternity to an agency that gets its funding on a year-by-year basis. The Forest Service eventually agreed to a 10-year project.

Gorbet smiles quietly over the differences that threatened to undo the stewardship project she helped design. Settled comfortably in her second-floor office in Greenville, Calif., surrounded by maps and buckets of last year's acorns, she often glances out her window at Keddie Ridge, where Maidus believe Worldmaker has been resting since completing his work.

Despite her calm presence, Gorbet isn't afraid to confront federal officials. She is currently butting heads with the Forest Service over off-highway vehicle trails across Maidu archaeological sites. She also wants the government to return a piece of ground to the Mountain Maidu, a landless tribe whose existence is not officially recognized by the federal government.

Asked if she is an environmentalist, Gorbet pauses, and looks again toward Worldmaker's resting place. "I know I care about the land and I take care of it," she says. "If that's the definition of environmentalist, I guess I am."

The author writes from Plumas County, California.