Stand with the Pacific Ocean to your back and follow one of the creeks up through the dunes about a mile into the hills, and you’ll find a small open valley where shocks of coastal bunchgrasses grow. Close to the ground are mats of tender green clover and turpentine-scented coast tarweed. They make a mosaic of color and texture. Hazelnut and tanoak trees stand tall, and at the center of the valley sits a massive roundhouse that can hold 200 people. It’s where the Quiroste gather for ceremonies and trade. They cultivate and tend the valley’s plants—which they eat, weave into baskets, use as medicine, and use to lure the game they hunt—in part by setting fire to the landscape roughly every five years. Routinely burning the valley keeps out woody plants, like Douglas fir and coyote brush, and maintains the open, almost parklike grasslands.
Or so it was 250 years ago, and for thousands of years before that, on the San Mateo Coast in what is now known as Año Nuevo State Park.
We can picture that landscape this way because of an unusual project coordinated between UC Berkeley archaeologists, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, and California State Parks that has charted new territory for our understanding of California’s coast and first people. Quiroste Valley today—what grows there, who stewards it, and why—is also the result of an unprecedented coming together of unlikely bedfellows and even old adversaries in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
In 1769, Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portolá encountered the Quiroste tribe and the pastoral valley during his early expeditions up the coast, receiving lifesaving food and medicine from the native people there. Later, when the Spanish returned and the era of missions began, the Quiroste, along with neighboring tribes, were decimated and subsumed into the brutal system. With the Quiroste gone, the valley became grazing land for cattle and was planted with European grasses; later it hosted dairies for about five decades. In 1980, California State Parks took it over, and for a time the land was left alone. By then the grassland plants were all but gone. Coyote brush and Douglas fir filled the valley along with thickets of blackberry bushes and bursts of poison hemlock.
California State Parks wanted to bring back the grasslands, and in 2007 this hope converged with a movement to reunite a tribe with its land. Just south of Quiroste Valley lies the San Juan Valley, where the Amah Mutsun lived in 30 to 40 villages, speaking the Mutsun language, until waves of missionaries, Spanish colonizers, and then Americans annihilated and scattered them. While no one living here today can trace their history to Quiroste, some 600 members of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band continue to seek federal recognition of their tribal status.
In 2006 the tribe found itself at a crossroads, according to Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and president of the Amah Mutsun Land Trust board of directors. The elders at a tribal council meeting directed tribe members to return to their land and fulfill their promise to their Creator. “And that was confusing as heck because our tribe, we own no land,” Lopez says. “We cannot afford to live in our territory.” How would they care for lands that were fenced off, littered with no-trespassing signs, and owned by all manner of groups and individuals?
From roughly south of San Francisco to the Pajaro River, the Santa Cruz Mountains push up from the Pacific coast, reaching above 3,000 feet and separating the ocean from San Francisco Bay and the Santa Clara Valley. Almost synonymous with coast redwood forests, the mountains also support oak woodlands, riparian forest, chaparral, and grasslands. The southern third of the range, Santa Cruz County, is an international hot spot for biological diversity, home to more than 100 rare plants and 30 rare animals, including the marbled murrelet, a federally listed seabird that nests in old-growth redwoods. Around 50 to 70 mountain lions live throughout the mountains with home ranges that stretch between 40 and 150 miles.
Imagine all that ecological diversity, and then examine a map of land ownership throughout the mountain range: it’s an intricate patchwork quilt of government-owned and private lands. Conceiving of how to care for the 350-square-mile bioregion is a massive endeavor. But in 2013 Sempervirens Fund, California’s oldest land trust, convened more than 22 groups—parks, government agencies, timber companies, land trusts, Cal Poly State University, UC Santa Cruz, Cal Fire, and others—that had major stakes in the lands. Some enjoyed long-standing working relationships, while others had little to no communication with one another. Still other groups had a stake as stewards, though they didn’t own any property—including the Santa Cruz and San Mateo Resource Conservation districts and the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. “It’s a highly fragmented landscape,” says Laura McLendon, director of land conservation for Sempervirens. To improve the ecological health of the Santa Cruz Mountains as a whole, all of these stakeholders would have to work collectively, across innumerable property and cultural lines.
That wouldn’t be easy. Some groups, including Sempervirens, formed in the wake of widespread old-growth coast redwood forest devastation in the 1800s and the early 1900s with a mission to preserve open space. Others, like Big Creek Lumber or Redwood Empire, made a living logging. And the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band had been landless since the late 1700s. Considering all this, Sempervirens had no idea what would happen when they gathered stakeholders in one room. It had never been done before in this region. But they wanted to try.
There were a few partnerships that suggested good things could happen, including one between Big Creek Lumber and the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County. Look out over Byrne-Milliron Forest, a stand of coast redwoods that wind up a ridge in the Corralitos area, and it’s difficult to imagine that about 120 years ago the lush forest was stubble. The 402-acre property had been entirely clear-cut, leaving a sole 233-foot-tall, 1,000-year-old redwood standing.
Byrne-Milliron was no outlier. Much of the Santa Cruz Mountains was clear-cut by the early 1900s. In the subsequent century the redwood stumps had resprouted, forming a forest, known as second growth, that was uniform in its size and age, lacking the complexity and, ultimately, the biodiversity of an old-growth redwood forest. With wildfire largely suppressed throughout the 1900s, the second-growth forests grew without the soil being enriched or any natural process for clearing out some of the trees and creating complexity.
The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County bought the property from the Byrne family in 1984 at a quarter of the land’s value, with the agreement that the Land Trust would both maintain timber production and open the area for recreation and community education about working forests. Lumber sales ultimately paid for the land’s purchase and now contribute to maintenance of its trails and roadways. The Land Trust hires Big Creek Lumber to lead the sustainable forestry efforts, and the second-growth forests in Byrne-Milliron are lush, but not too dense, with trees of varying sizes and age. The last tree standing on the property a century ago remains there today.
“The forest practice rules in Santa Cruz County are the strictest in California, California is the strictest in the U.S., the U.S. the strictest in the world,” says Steve Auten, an independent foresting contractor and former Big Creek employee. “So, if you can practice forestry here, you’re doing a good job.” Culling only 20 percent of the trees from a given area every 15 years, as is done at Byrne-Milliron, leads to consistent growth and a sustainable business. The forest here won’t develop into old growth—and it’s not intended to, per the Land Trust’s plan for the forest—but the group hopes to demonstrate that sustainable logging is possible.
Bryan Largay, conservation director for the Land Trust, says the public’s feelings about logging have been a challenge. He understands why; he felt the same when he first moved to Santa Cruz in the early 1990s. “I was a tree hugger from New England,” he says. “When I saw the logs and trucks going down Mission Street in Santa Cruz, I had this visceral reaction.” He says a neighbor of the forest told him that when she sees a truck going down the road with logs, “they look like bodies.”
When Sempervirens was convening Santa Cruz Mountains landowners for the first time, negative attitudes about active management—selective timber harvesting, prescribed fires, planting and thinning tree stands as part of stewardship—had largely changed, even for the staunchest preservation groups. Sempervirens’ first forest-thinning project occurred in 2010 and Save the Redwoods League was leading stewardship efforts. “Just buying and protecting the land is important, but certainly not enough,” says Anthony Castaños, the League’s land stewardship manager. “Especially as we’ve been experiencing wildfires, we’ve come to realize how important stewardship work is if we intend to live adjacent to these beautiful forests.”
“They have evolved,” says Kellyx Nelson, executive director of the San Mateo Resource Conservation District, of groups like Sempervirens and Save the Redwoods. “Not only have they evolved, but they’ve really become leaders in the voice for doing active forest management.”
Still, it remained to be seen whether the groups would see beyond their early differences and their core missions. How to begin collaborating? No one was entirely sure, even as Sempervirens put out a call asking if folks wanted to meet. And so, during their early meetings, the 19 groups elected to hire Converge, a firm specializing in environmental and social change networks. For a year and a half, Converge facilitated the group in forming a vision and building trust between members. “This was not trust falls and things like that,” McLendon says. “This was really digging into some deep questions about: What is stewardship? What are our goals for the landscape? What do we and don’t we know about each other? And what can we learn from each other as well?” Converge worked to dispel “misunderstandings or preconceived notions of what each organization was,” McLendon adds. “It was really eye-opening in that way.”
In one-on-one interviews with Converge, members voiced their hopes for collaboration, fears, goals for themselves and the land. When Janet Webb, president of Big Creek Lumber, first answered Sempervirens’ call, she knew some members may hold anti–timber harvesting sentiments, a concern she brought up with Converge. “They dug pretty deep,” Webb says. “People were pretty open with them individually, and they were very good at figuring out how to get people to open up and say those things in a group setting.”
Converge helped design the framework for the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network and a memorandum of understanding, which all network representatives signed. The contract took on symbolic meaning. “I signed on behalf of Sempervirens right under the line where Janet Webb from Big Creek Lumber signed,” says McLendon. “She and I have gotten to know each other personally and have a great rapport. I feel almost certain that the network has really opened up communication and trust among our organizations—and we’re never going to be the same. We have different goals for sure, but we’ve gotten past an era of unfairly maligning each other as bad actors, because we’ve been forced to get to know each other as people.”
With Converge’s work done, the members began to meet on their own and hired a network manager to oversee those operations, bringing on Dylan Skybrook, an expert in systems leadership from Minnesota, in 2016. “The amount network members don’t agree on is much smaller than the amount they agree on,” Skybrook says.
And they can agree that it’s better—for the good of both ecosystems and communities—to join forces to tackle the unique struggles of stewarding a combined 250,000 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains, an area filled with both natural bounty and ecological disarray.
As Amah Mutsun tribal members and Chairman Lopez began looking for ways to reconnect with their tribal lands, an opportunity arose in 2007, when UC Berkeley anthropologists approached the Amah Mutsun about participating in Quiroste Valley research along with State Parks. The results of the collaborative study are the basis for our understanding of how Quiroste Valley looked 250 years ago and how the people related to their ecosystem. It also spawned a delicate partnership between State Parks and the Amah Mutsun. “As land managers [we] use the research and best knowledge we have available to guide our management,” says Tim Reilly, an environmental scientist with State Parks. He and Lopez hatched a plan for restoring the valley to grasslands and for tribal members to return to the land, relearning the stewarding techniques of their ancestors. “We were brutally colonized,” Lopez says. “They wanted to wipe out our culture, our spirituality, and our environments because they knew we are really connected to our environment, the landscape.” Returning to the land was more than a homecoming; it was a return to a spiritual calling to care for the land and a means to repair some of the damage colonization wrought and reclaim a people’s identity.
The herculean plan entailed broadcasting seeds for important plants like tarweed; prescribed burns; removing invasives; masticating vegetation as a surrogate for fire; and, most controversially, removing native coyote brush and cutting down 10,000 of the Douglas firs that had filled Quiroste Valley.
“You can imagine the horror that some people felt about that,” says Nelson.
It was during some of the early Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network meetings that the Amah Mutsun and State Parks began talking with Nelson about Quiroste Valley. She helped them navigate the county’s planning commission approval process, in which Lopez and Reilly made their case. “I’ve been to a lot of [local] planning commission meetings and never before have I seen people in tears, so inspired by a project,” says Nelson, who maintains she probably wouldn’t have gotten involved with the project without the network. The commission unanimously approved the project.
But the county commission’s approval can always be appealed to the California Coastal Commission by any member of the public. A chapter of the Sierra Club in Loma Prieta objected on a number of grounds, including potential erosion and the project’s impact on “scenic resources,” referring to the removal of the 10,000 Douglas firs.
Every member organization of the network, however, wrote to the Coastal Commission in support of the project. With that push, the final permit was approved in 2018. “We’re past the time where it’s considered sufficient to just acquire land and fence it off. We’re in a new conservation ethic now where we recognize that these lands need to be stewarded. They need to be cared for,” Nelson says.
In 2018, State Parks and the Amah Mutsun set their plan in motion with the RCD serving as a fiscal manager and lending staff support. In the first year and a half they’ve worked on a third of the 150 acres within Quiroste Valley, thinning Douglas fir and coyote brush and beginning to plant grassland species. Ten trained stewards from the Amah Mutsun tribe stayed nearby in a state park ranger house as a base of operations, and tribal interest in the work continues to grow. “We do a lot of leadership training because they’re going to be the ones who relearn this knowledge and carry it on, passing it on to the next generation,” Lopez says. The Amah Mutsun also run a stewardship internship program for high school and college students. This year, 51 young people enrolled. “The reason we do this is to honor our ancestors and to fulfill our obligation to Creator,” Lopez says. “It’s a great responsibility and they recognize that. It’s restoring a lot of self-esteem and bringing a lot of healing not only to our stewards, but to our tribe as a whole.”
Walk into Quiroste Valley today and you’ll see piles of vegetation curing for a winter burn and areas of the valley floor that haven’t seen sunlight in years where undergrowth is springing up. Permitted by Cal Fire (another network member), the Amah Mutsun and State Parks set fire to more than 150 vegetation piles last winter, marking the first time in 250 years that the area has seen a prescribed burn. Every day before the Amah Mutsun stewards begin, they pray together. But that day, as Lopez conducted a blessing, it felt particularly special. “It was very emotional,” Reilly remembers, looking over the valley, a little overcome.