Learning the land
Ryan Summerlin July 13, 2012
Students from the Native Youth Conservation Corps will camp at Hope Valley to learn about Native American heritage and land management this month.
NYCC is part of the Sierra Native Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Native American families, cultures and environments. According to SNA Executive Director Anno Nakai, the Alliance founded the conservation corps four years ago as a job program for underserved intertribal teens and young adults.
“Part of our goal is to engage youth we might not otherwise engage. We’re really interested in developing leadership,” Nakai said.
The students range from 16 to 24 years old and come from the Placer and El Dorado counties in the Sierra Nevada foothills. They’ll also be working in Bear Valley, a traditional gathering place for the Maidu people, and Indian Valley this summer. Hope Valley sits on Washoe land.
It can be a very personal experience for the Maidu and Washoe youth to work on sites with such a rich historical heritage, SNA Program Coordinator Jason Williams said.
When the group heads south to Hope Valley on July 24, they’ll be learning about both old and new ways to care for the land. This summer, the NYCC will partner for the first time with American Rivers, a national organization that works to protect and restore U.S. waterways. One of the goals, said Nakai, is to teach the youth about current environmental issues.
Luke Hunt, the associate director of conservation for American Rivers in California, is the project coordinator for the Hope Valley work. The focus of the project will be on restoring the meadows in the valley.
“We’re really excited. Meadows have been an important place for the Native Americans, and they’re really important for us,” Hunt said.
According to Hunt, who holds a doctorate in biomechanics and ecology from Stanford University, meadows provide critical habitat for wildlife as well as store and filter water. During a drought, the land is especially important.
“A meadow soaks up the precipitation when we don’t need it and then it releases the water when we do need it. They work as giant sponges,” Hunt said.
But when the streambeds running though these meadows erode, the water level drops, draining the meadow and drying out the sponge. Measuring that erosion and the stream flows is what Hunt and the NYCC will focus on.
Water quality concerns align closely with SNA’s mission to highlight environmental stewardship as an important part of the Native American tradition. Not only will the students learn about land management, they’ll also learn about traditional medicine and hunting and gathering techniques, Nakai said.
Part of the funding for the project comes from a national $3.7 million competitive grant initiative announced last May in a U.S. Department of Agriculture press release. According to the release, the money will fuel 20 projects across the country and put more than 500 young men and women to work on Bureau of Land Management lands, national forests and grasslands this summer.
The money was awarded to projects with a connection to the more than 400 million acres of land managed by the BLM or Forest Service. Many of the projects engage with urban or underserved youth, the release reported. Thanks to those funds, the SNA has extended the NYCC program from six weeks to a year, allowing the students to monitor seasonal changes just like the tribes traditionally did.