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Life in Balance: the Indigenous Story

To Conserve and Protect: The Feather River

Story by Mikey Arias
On a day where rain drops and whirling wind woke me up, I left my house at 7:45 a.m. to participate in a group hike on the Feather River that had two things in mind: conservation and education.
Hosted by the Butte Environmental Council as one of the three Feather River events called “Citizen Science Outings,” this hike was purposed to teach its explorers about the river and the native tribe known as the Maidu people who once settled there.
The hike was led by BEC’s watershed program coordinator, Lindsay Wood, who invited colleague, Kenneth Holbrook for additional education purposes.
Holbrook is a member of the Maidu tribe and the executive director of the Maidu Summit Consortium and Conservancy program.
Together they wanted to tell the story of the Feather River in its entirety – from early settlement prehistory to the introduction of hydroelectric technology on the river today.
14 hikers were anticipated to show up, but with 100 percent chance of rain and wind gusts up to 25 mph, Wood, Holbrook and myself were the only ones waiting at the Park and Ride lot off of Deer Creek Highway.
After 20 or so minutes, the three of us got in Holbrook’s truck and took off toward the Feather River.
Holbrook drove as he talked about his involvement at the Maidu Summit Consortium and Conservancy program.
“Forest health is what we really focus on,” Holbrook said, when he reached back and handed me a pamphlet he wrote titled, “The Story of the People.”
According to the pamphlet, the Maidu is one of Northern California’s indigenous tribes that once settled along the Feather River. They lived harmoniously with the surrounding land until the 1850’s – when white settlers came.
The settlers took over the land and brought diseases, killing many of the Maidu people. The ones who remained were left with very little to survive.
This part of Feather River history is often overlooked, according to Wood.
“When I look at all the history of the different watersheds, it completely excludes that and calls it prehistory,” Wood said. Which is why she brought Kenneth along to help tell the story of the Maidu.
But the purpose of the hike for the BEC, Wood said, is to advocate for the watersheds that don’t have anyone advocating for them.
The Big Chico Creek, for example, has several organizations advocating for it. Where the Feather River really doesn’t, according to Wood.
After 45 minutes of driving on Highway 70, we finally arrived at our first stop.
Holbrook parked next to a PG&E powerhouse that was in the way of the rapids we were trying to see when he waved at a PG&E worker and sarcastically said, “We just look at them and smile.”
As we kept driving along the Feather River, I saw at least five of these hydroelectric powerhouses that convert water into electricity.
Wood said, “PG&E is too powerful.” Referring to the dams and other structural buildings on the Feather River that PG&E and the California Department of Water Resources creates.
“My goal is to get people aware of the impacts that infrastructure has made on salmon species,” Wood said.
Oroville Dam presents a huge problem for the migrating salmon that come from the Pacific Ocean into the Feather River to spawn.
The salmon travel from the ocean into the San Francisco Bay where they make their way into the Sacramento River and swim north, thus ending up in the Feather River.
But the salmon are stopped at the lower Feather River, Wood said. Which prevents them from reaching the upper arm – where we were ¬– because of Oroville Dam.
This is a problem not only for the salmon, but also for surrounding forest life.
“The salmon bring with them a lot of marine nutrients that can’t be found in the ecosystems otherwise,” Wood said.
The nutrients Wood is referring to are nitrogen and phosphorus. Both of these natural elements are known to enrich the forest’s vegetation and soil when animals feed on the salmon and leave their remains – scattering the nutrient enriched carcasses on the forest floor.
According to the Sacramento River Watershed Program, the upper arm of the Feather River is 3,200 square miles, where the lower arm is 803 square miles.
Wood said 80 percent of the Feather River is then cut off from receiving the salmon’s marine nutrients because of Oroville Dam.
Looking at the murky, fast moving water as we drove to our next stop, Wood said the relationship between the river and salmon is more important than people think.
We were viewing a branch off the Feather River called Rock Creek. It was hard to hear each other over the rushing wind and rain, so we scurried back into the car and drove to the next stop on the river.
Holbrook continued to drive north, parallel to the Feather River as we turned our heads to look at the waterfalls coming off the sides of the mountains. Wood looked at the falls and said she could cry because there were so many – compared to previous years.
For our third and final brief walk, we stood around a previously used fire pit from a camping site. It was an area where the Maidu once settled, Holbrook said.
Holbrook kicked around the blackened wood on the ground when he said the forest service was putting too much time and money into forest production, instead of forest managing.
The Maidu prided themselves as a group that excelled in their own forms of ecosystem management.
The Maidu looked at the Feather River and its surrounding landscape as a home and a means of survival. Their own lives depended on the health of the forest.
The Maidu would burn debris and other forest floor matter, Holbrook said. Doing this would not only generate useful nutrients for the soil, but it would prevent natural disasters such as wildfires.
According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, in 2013 Butte and Plumas counties had a combined total of 3, 418 acres affected by wildfires.
The same report calculated that it was more than $800, 000 in dollar damage caused by the wildfires.
“Balanced forest health requires active human participation,” Holbrook said.
One of Holbrook’s main concerns regarding the environment was for the forest service to find ecological viable ways to get rid of the woody debris that pose potential fire hazards to the wildlife, he said.
As the rain began to fall even harder, the three of us walked back to Holbrook’s truck.
On our way back to Chico, soaking wet and tired from the day, I realized the kind of active participation it must take to sustain and advocate for the environment that Holbrook and Wood dedicate their lives to.
This article was revised and updated from its original post on April 1, 2016.