Tribes use land conservancies to reclaim ancestral grounds

  • Native American Land Conservancy Director Kurt Russo reads a Chemehuevi creation story to Native youth taking part in the group's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-funded Learning and Healing Landscapes program in the Old Woman Mountains Preserve in 2010.

    NALC Archives

Two Border Patrol agents race up on ATVs, rifles across their backs, and demand to know what Louie Guassac is doing, walking near the California-Mexico border. "We own this land," replies Guassac, a sturdy Kumeyaay Indian with a long black braid. It's something his tribe hasn't been able to say about this patch of desert since around 1875, when its members were first forced off traditional lands onto reservations.

As the ATVs roar off, Guassac stands among boulders and yellow wildflowers at the foot of his tribe's most sacred peak, Kuuchamaa Mountain. "If you just allow your senses to sense it, you'll feel it," he says. "The spirit is strong and it hasn't gone away." In 2009, three bands of Kumeyaay bought 43 acres here. Now, they're transferring the property to the Kumeyaay Digueño Land Conservancy, a nonprofit started this year by the governments of several Kumeyaay bands.

The nonprofit is part of an emerging trend among Native Americans to form land conservancies, managed by Indians, to acquire important ancestral lands outside reservations. The goal is to regain control of the land and protect it according to tribal values -- a method several tribes have found to be more effective than simply buying the land outright or working with the federal government to put it in trust. It's a way for tribes to become whole again, piece by piece. Guassac, who serves on the Kumeyaay Digueño Conservancy's board, says, "The Indian way of life is all based on the land. That's who we are."

Today, there are perhaps 10 tribal land conservancies, including the Native American Land Conservancy in Southern California, the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council in Northern California, Montana's Blackfeet Indian Land Conservation Trust, and the nationwide Indian Country Conservancy. Several other tribes are considering the idea, says Beth Rose Middleton, author of Trust in the Land: New Directions in Tribal Conservation.

Indian Country Conservancy is a spinoff of the much larger nonprofit Trust for Public Land. The trust's Tribal and Native Lands Program, started in 1999, has protected more than 200,000 acres for about 70 tribes. But last year, the program's leaders decided more tribes would embrace it if it became a separate organization with a mostly Native American board and CEO. It's currently working on projects in the Northwest for the Nez Perce and Yakama Indians.

Some Indian conservancies partner with government agencies and environmental groups to share costs. They also obtain funding from tribal governments, casino revenues, grants and memberships  -- even raising money through fashion shows and golf tournaments.  "One world is not shy of the other," says Kurt Russo, the Native American Land Conservancy's executive director.

Native-run land conservancies can protect land more quickly and with less red tape than the more traditional "fee-to-trust" programs, in which the federal government owns the land and manages it for the tribe. Getting approval for "fee-to-trust" transfers can require decades of working through regulations from zoning ordinances to environmental analyses.

In addition, conflicts between tribes and local governments have created problems for fee-to-trust transfers. Local governments often fear tribes will build casinos on new land. That worry also makes it harder for tribes to buy land directly, as does the possibility of higher property taxes, which don't apply to fee-to-trust properties and are lower for conservancy lands.

A land conservancy, however, typically prevents most development -- including casinos. And Native conservancies are able to manage land in a way that supports tribal values -- perhaps their greatest advantage. "Native land conservancies often put an emphasis on active engagement with the land," says Middleton, "for food, medicine, arts, utilitarian and spiritual uses. If you don't have access to the land, those things are lost."

In California's Mojave Desert, the Chemehuevi Indians have regained access to Old Woman Mountains Preserve. The 2,560-acre site was purchased in 2002 by the Native American Land Conservancy. The preserve contains rock formations, petroglyphs, plants and wildlife that are key to the tribe's history and spiritual beliefs. More than a third of California's native plant species can be found within its borders, and it's an important migration route for neotropical birds.

The preserve is open to both Native and non-Natives, but Russo says differing land-use values can cause conflict. "The tribes aren't acquiring and protecting them as picnic parks," he explains. In the preserve, he says, there are "no fires, absolutely no hunting, no rock climbing, collecting of plants or disturbing the cultural resources. You want to come here, you walk, you enjoy it, experience it. But it has to be done in a respectful way that is quiet." To enforce that, the conservancy employs a site monitor.

Kuuchamaa Mountain, on the other hand, will be primarily preserved for Kumeyaay Indians, says Guassac -- a place for tribal members to teach their children. It's a fraction of their historic territory, but it's a start. "This is preservation for future generations," he says. "So it's not just for our people, but it's also for your people."

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