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Where was the emergency? Why did CalFire approve plans to clearcut the part of Humbug Valley back-burned in the Chips Fire before many even knew about it? How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?
Those were some of the questions posed during a meeting Friday, Dec. 14, between California Indians of Mountain Maidu heritage, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Lassen National Forest representatives.
The Plumas County supervisor for District 3, Sherrie Thrall, called the meeting in the interest of better communication.
Absent from the meeting was a local CalFire person who was expected, according to organizer Marcia Ackerman, alternate for Lorena Gorbet of the United Maidu Nation, and Douglas Mullen, of the Greenville Rancheria.
Humbug, where Yellow Creek meanders, is a sacred valley to the Mountain Maidu, many of whom have ancestors buried there.
There were village sites, special trails, grinding rocks and other culturally sensitive places still evident to those who know how to look for them.
Only two of these places were publicly marked on a map, though, from a survey taken back in the 1980s.
Maidu toured the area after the fire and thought the back-burn might actually have done some good, according to Reina Rogers, chairwoman of the Roundhouse Council Indian Education Center in Greenville.
She said they were pleased by the cleansing effects of the burn and by how the trunks were barely scorched.
But when they went back for another look, they said they were shocked to see it had been clear-cut and no provision yet made to prevent erosion.
PG&E forester Dan McCall explained there were criteria for tree selection, and the trees met that. Protecting the remaining stand from insects that would come for the dead wood was one reason he gave for the speedy work.
He also said that the tops might look green, but the cambium layer in the trunks could still be damaged enough to make the tree susceptible to insects.
Over quips and queries about how fast bugs would have moved in, Rogers said they would just have to agree to disagree about whether the area should have been logged.
The Humbug area is up for donation, possibly to the Maidu Summit or the California Department of Fish and Game, via PG&E’s bankruptcy divestiture of all lands not used in operations.
The other areas yet to be logged are up for donation, according to PG&E land planner Mike Momber, who said he did not know exactly which parcels were up for donation or not in the Canyon Dam and Butt Valley areas.
Momber said he knew about the skepticism he’d be confronted with, and insisted he had other experts with him who supported the tree selection criteria he used.
“To our knowledge there have been no (cultural) sites adversely impacted by logging operations,” said PG&E employee Jim Nelson, senior cultural resources specialist.
Ackerman asked specifically about a tree felled across the historic trail.
“There was one tree felled during fire suppression efforts,” he said, and then he explained how emergency firefighting operations are known for things like that. “Firefighters will bulldoze right through (cultural) sites.”
Momber reiterated McCall’s earlier apology to the gathered Maidu that communications did not happen as they should have.
Instead of receiving up to five days for review and comment before CalFire approved the logging plan, work had already started before most of the Maidu Summit members even knew about it.
Nelson and McCall explained how they did their jobs as best they could and with pride, showing care for natural and cultural resources.
But still, there were problems.
“CalFire has realized they did not give enough notice before approving the plans,” McCall said.
Also, some Maidu are not willing to share information about culturally sensitive sites, said Trina Cunningham of the Maidu Summit, a collective of nine local tribes and grassroots organizations formed about 10 years ago to create a common understanding and accord.
Some would say that if a fire burned it, leave it alone, it’s the natural way of things, she said, for example. And then some would want to speak up for protection, she added.
So only the two sites recorded back in the 1980s were known when work started.
Work was stopped when PG&E officials realized some Maidu groups had never received notices, or had received them after work had started, McCall explained.
Maidu representatives met with planners for a walk through the logging areas, and several more culturally sensitive sites were recorded, according to Acting Almanor District Ranger Ryan Foote, who was also the resource advisor on the Chips Fire.
He gave the new survey results to CalFire, and assured Cunningham they would not be shared with the public.
The emergency, explained McCall, was to get wood to market before deterioration and insects set in.
He went on to explain what should have happened:
Tribes should have been sent notices of planned operations even before CalFire.
After receipt, CalFire then has up to five days to make a decision on the emergency plan.
Instead they approved it the day after receiving it, he added, so work began only six days after the first notice went out.
“We realize that things got hung up in our process,” McCall added. “We’re looking to do better.”
“They’re not used to notifying unrecognized Indians,” said Maidu elder Franklin Mullen.
“We have family members buried out there,” Cunningham said. “This is our homeland, always. We need to be constantly vigilant.”
Also present at the meeting and participating in discussion were Donna Clark of the Susanville Indian Rancheria, Ben Cunningham of the TSI-Akim Maidu, and Maidu Summit Chairman Farrell Cunningham.
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