In the early 1950s, a Swedish dairy farmer and real estate magnate named Axel Adler came to California and fell in love with Big Sur. The rugged backcountry, the spring flowers, the redwoods tall over the clear Little Sur River, the waves crashing on the rocky coast. It was the perfect place for a home, and Adler built a small cabin on the onetime property of Charles Bixby. Bixby himself had forged a homestead in Big Sur in 1868, bought up 1,100 acres of timberland, and made his fortune logging and ranching before ultimately selling his property to lime miners. By the 1950s most of the biggest trees had been cut, and Adler was able to buy up the land around his dream vacation home, until he had acquired his beautiful 1,200-acre Rancho Aguila. The property had a slice of the river, green meadows bursting with purple lupines, and views of the ocean and the nearby 3,700-foot summit of Pico Blanco.
In 2004 Adler died, and afterward his family put the ranch up for sale. “I have never seen a better opportunity to own a national treasure,” the listing realtor wrote. “The possibilities are endless.”
Another version of the timeline goes something like this. For at least 6,000 years a unique Hokan-speaking people called the Esselen lived in villages throughout the coastal mountains around Big Sur. Their creation stories centered on the mountain later called Pico Blanco, high up in the hills with a view west toward the coast and east toward the headwaters of the Little Sur River. Within a few decades of their arrival in 1769, the Spanish forced these people into new missions in Carmel, Soledad, and Jolon. The Spanish separated families, banned the speaking of the Esselen language, and banned the practice of cultural traditions. When people ran away from the missions or hid in the remote corners of the Santa Lucia Mountains, soldiers hunted them.
In the Mexican era the government parceled out the Esselen homeland to settlers. Some of the Esselen, freed from the missions but without their full ancestral lands to return to, learned to work as cowboys on the new ranches. Then came Americans like Charles Bixby, who saw the land as available for settlement and exploitation. In the decades just before Axel Adler arrived to claim his piece of Big Sur heaven, the grandparents of Tom Little Bear Nason felt they had to hide their children from the census to avoid persecution.
“My grandfather and father, when he was a boy, he was told never ever say you were Indigenous, or Native, or ‘Indian,’” Nason says. “That was the truth. And the elders still have that in them. They instilled this fear of letting the world know who you are.”
Nason’s family had bought their own land in the hills and stayed. In the ’60s and ’70s an Indigenous cultural revitalization began, first as people started to reclaim their identity and later through restoration of language and cultural traditions. Still, today, the United States government believes the Esselen people to be extinct. It does not recognize any of the people, communities, or organizations made up of Esselen descendants as an Esselen tribe. The modern-day Esselen have split into factions, including a new nonprofit chaired by Nason called the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County and a separate, older tribal organization, the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, chaired by Louise Miranda Ramirez.
When the Adler Ranch property was put up for sale, the land trust Western Rivers Conservancy, seeing the value for conservation, stepped in with a plan to purchase the land and give it to the United States Forest Service, to become uninhabited forestland, protected forever from people.
Settlers and displaced Natives, a generation of resource extraction, a land trust, and then an end in government ownership: that’s how land conservation stories in California usually go. Sometime around the late 1800s, a white rancher or logger arrives and acquires newly expropriated Native land. The immigrant makes money off his cows or timber and expands to acquire more property. He and his family grow to love the land. After acquiring a family fortune over a century, they want to see their slice of trees or rangelands preserved. The patriarch retires or dies, the children or grandchildren sell—at a fair market price, in one of the hottest real estate markets in the world—to a land trust. The land trust does some cleanup, takes a biological survey, and spends what is necessary to prepare the property for a permanent owner, typically a government agency, which can protect it forever. The land is “saved”—although the people for whom it is saved, and the people from whom it is saved, are not often named, says José González, founder of Latino Outdoors and a partner with Avarna Group, an organization that promotes equity in environmental work.
In the Bay Area, where there’s both wealth and a passion for conserving nature, this happens often. From 2010 to 2018, more than 144,000 acres were acquired for the purpose of conservation by land trusts and governments in Bay Area counties and Santa Cruz. More than 1.4 million acres of land are protected in those 10 counties already, according to Together Bay Area, an umbrella organization of regional land conservation groups. All of that protected land was once Ohlone, Miwok, Pomo, or Wappo land; none of it is now with the exception of a 254-acre reservation that the Miwok- and Pomo-descended Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria purchased on their own in 2005; the Kashia Pomo’s 42-acre Stewarts Point Rancheria reservation and nearby 688-acre coastal reserve in northern Sonoma County; the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo’s 75-acre rancheria outside Healdsburg; the Lytton Rancheria Pomo’s 9.5-acre casino in San Pablo; and a quarter-acre in Oakland owned by the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust.
None of the contemporary Indigenous groups whose ancestors lived in the central San Francisco Bay Area or Monterey Bay area are recognized as tribes by the federal government—not the Muwekma, not the Ramaytush, not the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, not the Amah Mutsun, not the Rumsen, not the Salinan, not the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, not the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County. One Ohlone family holds land in Indian Canyon outside Hollister, the only federally recognized “Indigenous land” on California’s Central Coast. They acquired the first piece by a trust allotment in the early 1900s.
The largest land parcel for sale in California right now is the 50,500-acre N3 Ranch, outside Livermore. Conservation groups have targeted this as a critical acquisition property, home to uncounted rare species and connecting enormous swaths of the biodiverse Diablo Range. The land has been in the same family since a rancher named Clara Vickers Naftzger moved there in the 1930s and started buying it from the state.
When Mexico became independent from Spain and closed the California missions in the 1830s, several surviving Ohlone families gathered to live in Pleasanton, Niles, and Sunol, in territory on and around the modern-day N3 Ranch area. In 1851, federal government representatives negotiated a treaty with these East Bay Ohlone, who agreed to cede their land in exchange for land in the Sierra foothills and supplies. The Senate never ratified or honored the treaty and kept its existence secret until 1905. When the treaty came to light, the government passed new laws that required the Bureau of Indian Affairs to buy land for “homeless Indians”—including what they now recognized as the Verona Band of Alameda County, the Ohlone still living on the land in Pleasanton, Sunol, and Niles. The government never found land for the Verona. Potential sellers didn’t want Indigenous neighbors or they asked inflated prices, according to a tribal history. Finally in 1927, a few years before Vickers Naftzger arrived to buy the first pieces of her N3 Ranch, a BIA agent named Lafayette Dorrington, who seems to have neither visited nor investigated the Verona, wrote, “It does not appear at the present time that there is need for the purchase of land for the establishment of their homes.” In that decision, the Verona Band lost its federal recognition as a tribe and its rightful claim to land.
The Verona Band dispersed away from Livermore, though many remained in Alameda County. Over the next few decades on the N3 property, Vickers’ son, Roy Edgar “Ted” Naftzger Jr., expanded the family operations and made millions on cattle, oil leases, and real estate. In 2007 Naftzger Jr. died, lionized in obituaries for his rare coin collection, his sportfishing prowess, and his “lifetime love of history.” In 2019, no longer interested in ranching, his children offered the ranch for sale for $72 million. The listing agent, Todd Renfrew, told me last fall that the property “looks like it did 2,000 years ago.”
If they can, conservation groups will pay this figure. The state government will likely try to chip in, and perhaps N3 will become a new state park. The landless, unrecognized direct descendants of the Verona Band, who today call themselves the Muwekma Ohlone, have not been part of the public conversation nor consulted on the sale.
As millions of acres in the American West burned this fall, science and land managers turned to traditional ecological knowledge to look for better ways of preventing catastrophic fires and increasing productivity. Indigenous burning, which for decades many scientists and land managers refused to believe even happened, is now a cover story in The New York Times and The Guardian. The phrase “stolen land” has become a sort of progressive mantra. Land acknowledgments are common practice. “One of the best climate solutions is giving Indigenous people their land back,” the climate journalist Eric Holthaus wrote in October.
Yet in the progressive Bay Area it’s still rare to see land, even public land, returned to the people from whom it was stolen and whose ancestors learned the ecological lessons about how to best manage it. The customary route white-led conservation groups follow in acquiring, protecting, and distributing land, along with the organizational challenges Ohlone groups in particular face after two centuries of genocide and broken government promises, combine to make true land repatriation a challenge in the San Francisco and Monterey Bay areas even as it picks up momentum elsewhere.
Perhaps that’s what made the announcement in July 2020 quickly go viral: the Esselen were getting 1,200 acres of land back near Big Sur.
In 2015, shortly after the Western Rivers Conservancy went into escrow on the Adler Ranch property, neighbors raised concerns about fire. The Adlers had cleared much of the property’s vegetation, creating a fire break in the rugged, fire-prone Santa Lucia Mountains. If the Forest Service took over management of the land, it would likely return it to forest, highly flammable with crowded new growth.
The deal fell apart. Western Rivers was left looking for a new partner to transfer the land to. Western Rivers President Sue Doroff says the nonprofit wanted to make sure the land was protected long-term. Land trusts usually see the United States government as a safe bet for permanence. But Native American tribes have been around longer. And unlike many other land trusts, Western Rivers has worked to return land to Native groups. Between 2006 and 2018, the organization worked with the Yurok Tribe to buy nearly 50,000 acres on the Klamath River from the Green Diamond Resource timber company, most of which has been repatriated.
The announcement quickly went viral: the Esselen were getting 1,200 acres of land back near Big Sur.
“We really didn’t understand that that was unusual until people started saying, ‘Wow, you’re working with tribes,’” Doroff says. “Tribes all have different capacities. But the fact is, the care of rivers and the critters that depend on them is central to Native American tribes. We have the same vision for the long-term management of landscape as tribes. So for us, Native American tribes are natural partners.”
When a conservation land trust buys a property with the intention of future stewardship, the priority is generally to ensure or enhance biodiversity. The trust needs to ensure that the new owners or managers have the longevity and the capacity to take on that commitment. As part of the accreditation process of the American Land Trust Alliance, land trusts agree to do surveying and come up with written management plans for every property they acquire.
The Yurok, a large, federally recognized tribe with a constitution that emphasizes conservation, make ideal partners. In 2015, the Trust for Public Land transferred a 688-acre property on the Sonoma Coast to the federally recognized Kashia Pomo. In 2017 Save the Redwoods League also worked with the Kashia as well as county and state agencies to create a cultural easement on 800 acres at Stewarts Point, which the League had purchased in 2010. Easements aren’t a true, full repatriation, but they can nonetheless heavily restrict certain kinds of land use and grant exclusive rights or access to tribes. Tribal organization and federal recognition play a key part in such deals, says Dave Sutton, the California director at TPL. Funders also felt more secure supporting the projects, Sutton adds, knowing that the Yurok and the Kashia had committed to not building casinos.
Axel Adler had always considered selling his land to the Esselen. But when Adler died in 2004, the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County nonprofit had not yet formed, and the more established though federally unrecognized 600-member Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, to which Nason has never belonged, was in the midst of an acrimonious internal split over leadership.
In 2018 Nason and the other four members of his tribal council created the nonprofit, which allowed them to apply for grants, work with local land trusts and agencies, and ultimately secure the Adler Ranch deal. OCEN Tribal Chair Louise Miranda Ramirez says her group, which first organized in 1992 to pursue federal recognition, was left disappointed. A white anthropologist’s academic dissertation covering OCEN’s long history in Monterey, which doesn’t mention Nason, was used to support the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County’s claim to the land, she says. Furthermore, she says the divide between OCEN and the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County would likely make it more difficult for either to gain federal recognition.
Modern tribal territory disagreements are common among people whose ancestors were forced to move off their lands into missions elsewhere, later returning to different lands and often marrying people from other places, and who have been intentionally divided and marginalized. But UC Davis Native American Studies Department Chair Beth Rose Middleton says conservation groups should understand the history of land where they work, accept that any action will be challenging, and nonetheless not give up in the face of complexity.
The Adler Ranch acquisition ultimately involved not just the tribal nonprofit but Western Rivers and the California Natural Resources Agency. Western Rivers brought the acquisition expertise and managed the deal; the state provided all of the money for the $4.5 million acquisition plus extra for initial stewardship from Prop 68, a 2018 bond measure funding park and water projects. The Esselen nonprofit now holds the title to the land. And other regional nonprofits supported the tribe in planning efforts. The Big Sur Land Trust has contributed staff expertise to help mentor the Esselen in grant writing, invoicing, finding contractors, and conducting ecological surveys. The Esselen also partnered with the Conservancy for the Range of the Condor, which was interested in long-term management of the property as condor habitat.
“It took us a long time to develop relationships with land trusts,” Nason says. “We couldn’t have done this without the help of other groups.”
Land acquisition everyone will tell you, is an opportunistic business. The right land doesn’t become available often. If you’re not ready, you miss out. Land trusts sometimes have to overpay a mercenary seller, and land speculators can look at a map of conservation priorities and anticipate what land trusts will want as easily as biologists can. One of the major limitations of land acquisition for conservation by private nonprofit trusts, UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus Sally Fairfax and colleagues write in the 2005 book Buying Nature, is that it prioritizes the needs of the seller. People want to sell when it’s convenient and lucrative for them.
On the Peninsula, for example, Larry Holmes, the son of a North Coast redwood timber magnate, planned for decades to sell his Santa Cruz Mountains vacation property at Cascade Creek to Save the Redwoods League. And Save the Redwoods naturally wanted the property—a critical connection between two protected areas, with some old-growth redwoods and a creek. They’d started talking about a transfer as early as the 1970s. They thought about it in the early 2000s, but then the Great Recession hit. A $9 million deal finally happened in 2020, when the price and timing worked favorably for the owner.
In Monterey, the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation has tried to protect a 7,000-year-old grinding mortar site on undeveloped residential property in Pacific Grove. In 2017 the owners proposed building a 3,600-square-foot home plus a patio, driveway, and garage. A year later the state Coastal Commission, which regulates coastal property use, ordered an easement to prevent building within 75 feet of the mortars, and the owners decided to sell rather than work with OCEN. The lot sold in March 2020 for $755,000, before OCEN and the Big Sur Land Trust could try to buy the land themselves, Ramirez says. The new owners have discussed protecting the mortars with OCEN and the land trust, Ramirez adds, but the Coastal Commission’s ban on developing that portion of the property has now expired.
In Santa Clara County, at the end of 2019 the Peninsula Open Space Trust, along with the city of San José, and the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority, bought a “critical linkage” in Coyote Valley that connects wildlife in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range. The seller was Brandenburg Properties, a real estate speculator that had purchased the property in 2016, when its critical conservation value was already widely established; the sale price just three years later netted Brandenburg a $23 million profit. The value of that land to future Californians, though, might be inestimable.
“Although most acquisition stories emphasize conservation goals and ‘victories’ for the buyers, our research suggests that the sellers’ priorities are more often controlling,” Fairfax wrote.
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One of the reasons it’s so rare to see Indigenous land repatriated is that many land trusts still feel trapped by a system that emphasizes speed and opportunity cost. When valuable land becomes available, you have to get it before it’s developed. Funders expect a long-term management plan showing who’s going to pay for maintenance and stewardship, and when land is on the market and you’re on the clock there isn’t time to partner, build relationships, or help a tribe become organized to manage it long-term. Large, stable government agencies—the U.S. Forest Service, California State Parks—have always offered peace of mind, one less thing to worry about in a complex and high-stress negotiation.
So while tribal organization and recognition matter, many previous repatriations have happened because of the seller. On the now Kashia Coastal Reserve, the Richardson family patriarch grew up going to school with members of the Pomo tribe, so he decided to sell his land to his old schoolmates even if it meant a financial loss. The Moore Foundation, says Save the Redwoods League President and CEO Sam Hodder, made a point of supporting the League’s effort to grant the Kashia an easement at Stewarts Point. Axel Adler, the Swedish dairy farmer, knew the Nason family from living in Big Sur.
One reason it’s so rare to see Indigenous land repatriated is that many land trusts still feel trapped by a system that emphasizes speed and opportunity cost.
Land conservation is changing, though. Traditional long-term government partners offer less stability than they once did. Funding has decreased and California State Parks hasn’t acquired a new park in years. Perhaps, Hodder says, that indicates an opportunity to consider other long-term owners or managers.
“I can imagine tribal capacity growing to fill that gap,” he says. “Their ethic of land stewardship at the Indigenous level long predated the conservation land ethic. As appropriate stewards of our conservation objectives, it’s a beautiful solution to shrinking leadership and capacity among other land management agencies.”
Corrina Gould, the tribal chairwoman and spokesperson of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan Ohlone, says she believes that if more people knew the story of the Ohlone, then perhaps more sellers would prioritize repatriation. The first step is getting Indigenous voices in the room when the land deals happen.
“When you look across the world, not just this country, there are people beginning to look at the history of the lands they are on, and looking at the question of whether they have the ability to give that land back,” she says. “We have ranchers in Australia giving land back to Aboriginal people, people with farmland giving back to Native women who have a land trust in New York…Maybe there’s the possibility of having a conversation with the family of these ranchers and saying, ‘Hey, can we tell you our story? We of all people want to conserve this land.’”
Why doesn’t repatriation happen more often in the Bay Area? Because the sellers often don’t know or care about the history of the land, because it costs more and the transaction takes longer for the acquirers, and because the federal government hasn’t recognized any of the Ohlone tribes, so it’s often unclear what Indigenous group has a valid claim to land. And the common method by which land moves out of private ownership and into the public domain involves conservation or recreation value. Tribal organizations often share a conservation ethic, and high-priority conservation properties like the Adler Ranch can fulfill both purposes. But the considerable amount of funding available for conservation excludes urban land that has more cultural than conservation value.
“There are funds for conservation. But there are none for buying back lands for tribes,” UC Davis professor Middleton says. “You don’t see bond measures or budget items [solely] for buying land back for tribes. I would like to see that. That would make a big difference.”
In the 1860s, a Bavarian settler named Johann Spenger moved to California and started fishing in Lake Merritt. He bought some land in West Berkeley and in 1890 built a house and a small stand for selling clams. His son Frank expanded the building into a full restaurant in the 1930s, and Frank’s son Buddy grew it into a thriving business, serving a celebrity clientele as well as generations of Berkeley residents. Though Buddy Spenger sold the business in 1999, the family trust still has an ownership share in the land, including the two-acre parking lot across the street at 1900 Fourth Street, which is co-owned by the Berkeley-based commercial development firm Ruegg & Ellsworth.
The Frank Spenger Company and Ruegg & Ellsworth would like to develop the land for mixed-use housing and retail. Confederated Villages of Lisjan Ohlone Chairwoman Gould, the Muwekma, and the city of Berkeley have fought such plans for years, in the courts and in the media. Gould says the property is Ohlone sacred land and wants it to become open space. In mid-September, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., listed the parking lot at 1900 Fourth Street as one of the “11 most endangered historic places” in the country. The city has largely lined up behind the Ohlone.
Sophie Hahn, the Berkeley vice mayor, said she’s ready to talk to the owners. “I can’t speak for the City of Berkeley until something has come before us and the Council has taken action,” she wrote in an email. “But I can say that I absolutely support having the city purchase and repatriate the parcel, or finding state, philanthropic, or other funds to do so.”
The problem, she added, is that you can’t do anything “without a willing seller.”
In late September, I called Dana Ellsworth at Ruegg & Ellsworth, the co-owner of the land, and asked if she would talk about the property. “No,” she said. “Thanks for calling.”
The case has largely been argued around the authenticity of the parking lot as a sacred site. Is it actually sacred land, or just in the physical vicinity of sacred land? The developer’s surveys did not yield remains or artifacts. An Ohlone archaeological consultant to the project cleared it to proceed. The developers planned 260 units of transit-friendly housing, including 130 affordable units, plus a park and retail. The construction guaranteed union jobs. The current assessed value of the parking lot is $590,000; a paved lot a quarter its size at 2176 Kittredge, where a developer will build housing, sold in June 2020 for $12 million. Why should the owners feel any obligation to sell it to the city, at a potential cost not just to the public good but to themselves, of tens of millions of dollars?
It’s an understandable question, one that at the same time illustrates how difficult it is to change the system that makes repatriation rare. Suppose this land wasn’t sacred to the Ohlones of 1760; it was nonetheless indisputably their land. As Gould and her allies have said repeatedly over the years, to place the burden on the landless, unrecognized survivors of a genocide to prove that a particular two-acre parcel was extra-special to their ancestors is perhaps to miss the bigger picture: it’s important to the people alive today. Repatriation might have to become imperfect and opportunistic just like any other land deal.
“Not that long ago my ancestors were living throughout the Bay in reciprocity with the land,” Gould says. “We have never left. Throughout the years our tribe has continued to pray at this place, just as our ancestors did. This land gives us a platform to tell our story.”