March 25, 2024

A Land Back Win for the Yurok Tribe

The Yurok Tribe entered into an innovative agreement in which their nation will co-manage returned land with the National Park Service and California State Parks.

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Underscore News + ICT

Yurok citizens, Save the Redwoods League employees, the National Park Service employees and California State Parks employees gathered in Orick, California on Tuesday morning. At a property the Yurok Tribe named ‘O Rew, the tribe and the three organizations signed a historic memorandum of agreement, to return a 125-acre stretch of land to the Yurok Tribe by 2026. 

This monumental agreement marks the first time in U.S. history that Native owned land will be co-managed by the National Park Service and California State Parks.

“This is a first-of-its-kind arrangement, where tribal land is co-stewarded with a national park as its gateway to millions of visitors,” said Steve Mietz, Redwoods National Park superintendent, in a press release issued by the Yurok Tribe. “This action will deepen the relationship between tribes and the National Park Service.” 

Located off of U.S. Highway 101, at the base of Bald Hills Road in Orick, California, ‘O Rew serves as the southern gateway to the Redwood National and State Parks. It is also roughly in the center of the traditional homelands of the Yurok Tribe and once served as a culturally and historically significant village site. 

Crews from Save the Redwoods League and the Yurok Tribe have already been working to restore Prairie Creek, at ‘O Rew, and the surrounding land — creating critical habitat that juvenile salmon and steelhead are now returning to. 

“This is not just a good day for Yurok, but a good day for Indian Country,” said Joseph James, chairman of the Yurok Tribe, mere hours after signing the memorandum of understanding. “As we are healing the land, it’s healing ourselves. So it’s a very proud moment in the timeline of the Yurok Tribe.”

A stretch of Prairie Creek, which runs through O’Rew, serves as critical habitat for coho salmon and steelhead. Ongoing restoration efforts, led primarily by Save the Redwoods League, Yurok Tribe Construction Corporation and Fisheries Department and California Trout has proven fruitful, as juvenile coho salmon and steelhead are already returning to the creek. (Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)

History of ‘O Rew

Part of the history that needs healing stems from the loss of the Yurok Tribe’s ancestral homelands during colonization. ’O Rew was once the center of the Yurok Tribe’s ancestral homelands, colonial settlers seized the land in the mid-1800s, as they attempted to forcibly remove the Yurok people during the gold rush expansion. 

Beginning in the mid-1900s, a lumber mill operated on ‘O Rew, according to a press release issued by the Yurok Tribe. In  2013, Save the Redwoods League purchased the site for conservation purposes and began to work on restoration projects. 

Transferring ownership of land formerly overseen by Save the Redwoods League to a Native nation, and signing a co-management agreement between the National Park Service and California State Parks with a Native nation on tribally-owned land, is a clear example of Land Back in action.

“Give the land back to the first peoples as stewards of the lands,” said Chairman James. “We know how to protect, to preserve, to take care of our land. This is what it looks like when we talk about land coming back to Indigenous people.”

For the past three years, Yurok Tribe restoration crews have had boots on the ground at ‘O Rew, leading efforts to restore an important stretch of Prairie Creek that serves as critical habitat for juvenile salmon and steelhead.

“Now we have a piece of property that's coming back that we can heal, and the tribe has already been doing that on this piece of property,” said Rosie Clayburn, enrolled tribal member and heritage preservation officer and cultural resources director at the Yurok Tribe. 

From left, Save the Redwoods President and CEO Sam Hodder, Redwood National and State Parks Superintendent Steven Mietz, Yurok Chairman Joseph L. James and California State Parks North Coast Redwoods Superintendent Victor Bjelajac sign the landmark agreement at ‘O Rew, returning the land to the Yurok Tribe. (Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)

Since beginning that restoration work three years ago, the Yurok Tribe restoration crews have worked to support fish by building a nearly mile-long stream channel, two connected ponds and around 20 acres of floodplain habitat, according to the press release. The crews have also planted over 50,000 native plants which include black cottonwood and coast redwood trees. Due to all this work, thousands of juvenile coho salmon, chinook salmon and steelhead are already returning, along with many other sightings of wildlife, such as waterfowl and elk, at ‘O Rew. 

“We've tagged young juvenile fish on the Klamath River and they've made it to this project already,” Chairman James said. “Our salmon are already coming to this site from the Klamath River. Everything is coming full circle with the dams coming down.”

‘O Rew returns to Native hands

The efforts to restore and return ‘O Rew to the Yurok Tribe has not been a journey embarked on alone. The Yurok Tribe, Save the Redwoods League, the National Park Service and California State Parks worked together to make this happen. Now, they envision creating a space that will both welcome guests to the Redwood National State Parks and also support Yurok citizens.

They plan to build over a mile of new trails, including a segment of California Coastal Trail in 2025, with direct access to the Lady Bird Johnson Grove in the Redwood National and State Parks, according to the release. Also in the works is a new visitor and cultural center as well as a traditional village including plank houses and a sweat house. The idea for it is to be a “living village,” according to Clayburn. This means Yurok citizens will have access to, and use of, the village plank and sweat houses. 

From left, Redwood National and State Parks Superintendent Steven Mietz, Save the Redwood League’s Director of Public Engagement Jessica Carter, Save the Redwoods President and CEO Sam Hodder, Yurok Tribal Heritage Preservation Officer Rosie Clayburn, California State Parks North Coast Redwoods Superintendent Victor Bjelajac and Yurok Chairman Joseph L. James tour the 125 acre property, O’Rew, that is now under tribal ownership. (Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)

Throughout ‘O Rew, interpretative signage will tell a story about the significance of the place to the first people of the land. The signs will likely be written in Yurok first, followed by an English translation, Clayburn said.

“Here's what you can expect to see of this land: it is going to be driven by Yurok people,” Chairman James said. “The importance of the land, the streams, the water, healing with the redwoods, being able to showcase and highlight that. This will also be done through interpretive signage and staff on the ground to let [visitors] know they're in Yurok country.”

Lead image: From left, Yurok Archivist Sasha LeMieux, Yurok Tribal Council Member Sherri Provolt, Yurok Fisheries Director Barry McCovey, Yurok Tribal Heritage Preservation Officer Rosie Clayburn, Yurok Chairman Joseph L. James, Yurok Tribal Council Member Wes Crawford, Yurok Tribal Council Member Mindy Natt, Deputy General Counsel Maggie Mais, and Interpretation Coordinator Nicole Peters stand for a photo after the agreement was signed, transferring O’Rew to tribal ownership. (Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that it is the first time in U.S. history that Native owned land will be co-managed by the National Park Service and California State Parks.

About the author

Nika Bartoo-Smith

Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to provide platforms for the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Most recently, she worked as the health and social services reporter at The Columbian in Vancouver, Washington. Prior to working at The Columbian, Nika spent the summer of 2022, after graduating magna cum laude from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism, working as a Snowden Intern at The News-Review in Roseburg, Oregon. A descendant of the Osage and Oneida Nations, Nika was born and raised in Portland. Her favorite way to unwind is by trying a new recipe, curling up with a good book or taking a hike in one of the many green spaces around Portland.

Twitter: @BartooNika

Email: nbartoosmith@underscore.news

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