This forgotten corner of California is nestled among redwoods that feel otherworldly. The state’s most pristine river holds more than a century worth of secrets.
Its emerald green water was once laced with Native American blood. Its wetlands were the scene of one of America’s largest massacres. Today, the Smith River in California is the last major waterway that flows freely without a dam. This river is a precious refuge for salmon, steelhead, and a bygone timber community still seeking a future.
Settlers came to California for the gold, then the trees. But this river is Del Norte County’s true lifeline. It is a California outlier, where farmers take the lead and environmentalists are treated with contempt. Many here want to leave a state where Norte is pronounced nor-tay by most. (Its nort.)
One resident stated that I grew up hearing that there was no law north of Klamath all my life. It’s like the Wild West.
For more than six generations, a single family has held the keys of this frontier: 1,668 acre pastureland at the river mouth. Here, clear, cold water flows from the Siskiyou Mountains towards the sea. This property is known as Reservation Ranch. It has been a highly sought-after property that was not accessible to the public. It has been deforested, and quiet altered over time by a system consisting of pumps, levees, and wetlands crammed with dead cattle and other waste.
When Reservation Ranch was suddenly listed for sale, chaos ensued. Since the beginning, conservationists have tried for years to restore this last section of the river. Now, the owners are being scrutinized by the state regulators. They rarely travel this far north. Rumors spread as farmers met privately to protest the loss of another livelihood.
The Tolowa Dee’ni, who were decimated and then left behind for more than 150 year, have also joined in the fray. A bold plea To be reunited to the land was an appeal that shocked many in this predominantly white community.
This clash of interest at Reservation Ranch reveals an uncomfortable truth: California, just like the great American West, was built on violence violence to the land and the native people of California.
This land of redwoods and spruce was known before Jedediah Smith, an American frontiersman, arrived in the 1820s. Yan-daa-kvt.
Tolowa people lived in harmony for centuries with the elk who roamed free, their smelt that returned each year, and the thousands Aleutian geese who once fanned along the coast. They managed the land through complicated laws and time-honored stories. Each riffle of the river was given a name.
Then, Natlh-mii~-tiThe knife-wielding white man arrived and led them to near-extinction. The Tolowa are almost unknown today.
One tribal leader recalled how her sons’ third-grade class could choose from Native American tribes to study. He saw Cherokee and Navajo on the list that his teacher gave him, but not his people.
What about the Tolowa, he asked. He asked. They were new to him.
Loren Me-lashne Bommelyn, a culture keeper for the Tolowa Dees-ni, began documenting the language and elders. He discovered horrifying details about a distant past.
There were government-sanctioned bounties beginning in the 1850s that awarded those who brought in Native American scalps one receipt showed a payment of $5, Bommelyn discovered. During the winter of 1853, hundreds of Tolowa people gathered in Yontocket for their world renewal ceremony. Local militia then flooded the area.
They massacred the villagers. They set everything ablaze.
Bommelyn said that the flames from the burning houses rose higher and that even babies were thrown into the river to their deaths. He spoke fluent Tolowa while he spoke. There were so many bodies that were either burned or tossed into rivers that it was impossible to count them all.
White sources estimate that the death toll was between 70-150 people. According to Tolowa accounts, it was closer to 450 or even 600.
Even if the former estimate is halved, Yontocket may be among the most deadly of all U.S. massacres, according to Benjamin Madley, a UCLA historian of Native America. His bookAn American Genocide. The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe. It remains unknown to other than a few scholars, locals and, ofcourse, the Tolowa.
It was a time shaped in the words of Peter Burnett who, as the first governor of California declared in 1851, that a war against the Indians will continue until they are extinct.
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As fortune seekers continued to flock to Del Norte in search of fortune, the Gold Rush was a constant factor. The Tolowa was subject to systematic abuse Attacks and imprisonment were used to imprison them; their children were taken from them. Madley stated that within five years their population had been reduced from 5,000 to 900.
In 1862, an agreement was reached that allowed the establishment of a roughly 40,000-acre reserve that included Yontocket. This peace lasted only six years. The Tolowa were put into concentration camps in 1868. Their land, which was located right at the mouth of the river and is highly valued along the coast plain, was up for grabs to any white man who qualified.
Heine Henry, the Westbrooks’ son, ended up with the parcels once home to the reservation headquarters. The Westbrooks had been elevated to local royalty by the middle of the 1900s. The Westbrooks are celebrated as hardworking outdoorsmenHenry Hank Westbrook III was a brother to Chopper, and they worked the land and tamed wetlands. As they transformed the family farm into pioneering ventures such as timber, dairy and Easter lily bulbs, a resort on the coast, and even the first privately owned fish hatchery within California,
Ranchers altered the estuary by dredging and blocking the channels, pumping and redirecting water for irrigation. Even manure from dead cattle can be dumped into the river. AccordingTo MultipleFederal and state agencies. Around 40% of the original land has been destroyed, drained, or diked. These are the results ViolationsThese could result in millions of dollars in fines and restoration orders. The Westbrooks are currently negotiating with them.
The Tolowas watched their world’s center slowly deteriorate throughout it all. The riverbank was the end of life. Water vanished. Redwood stumps that were left alone where the tallest trees in the entire world once stood are now a reminder of their former glory.
The ranch was then suddenly destroyed by the latest twist in fate. For saleThis critical piece of river could be owned by a new owner with $12.95 million for the first time in over 150 years.
Today, the Tolowa Dees-ni, a federally recognized country with approximately 1,800 members, lacked the funds to buy the property. They tried to raise the funds first. A public appeal for helpBut those hopes were quickly dashed as other interested buyers rushed to purchase. State regulators made it clear to all interested buyers that environmental violations must be corrected, regardless of who the ranch is owned.
Now, tribal leaders are launching a protest against what some call “green colonialism”. They have been left out of the sudden flurry high-level negotiations about the future of They have been trying to navigate the bureaucratic maze that is California land management since Reservation Ranch. Each agency, whether federal, state, or local, seems to be responsible for a specific area of land, river, or coast. This is a confusing and fragmented way of overseeing a place that, according to the Tolowa Dee’ni, is all interconnected.
The tribal council explained to a Times reporter that they want at least some part of any restoration plans. Too often, they stated, the council is informed about a landtrust deal or management strategy only after everything else has been decided. Looping in Tolowa Deeni often feels like a box to be checked at the end the planning process.
Scott Sullivan, the tribal vice-chairperson, reflected on how the health his people and this river valley are one another while he stood in a field full of reedcanarygrass, not far from Yontocket’s former home.
He pointed out a cluster of willows that was just beyond his reach. Reservation Ranch has been there for him all his life.
Sullivan stated that regardless of who the new owners are, this is still our center. We will work with all agencies to ensure that the necessary restoration is done. We will not abandon our responsibility to protect the land.
Tolowa has no words for land management and control. There is just shu-nelh-i~. To take care of the land.
The excitement was electric when the conservation community first heard that Reservation Ranch was up for sale. Many called Grant Werschkull, the obvious choice.
Werschkull, co-leads Smith River Alliance, has coordinated many efforts over the years in order to acquire properties that could be placed into the care of public agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and California State Parks.
His team immediately made an immediate offer.
In a state where many rivers are now choked with dams and where massive fish die-offs are becoming more common, the Smith serves to be a last stronghold for California’s vanishing salmons, steelheads, and cutthroat trout. These anadromous fish were born in freshwater streams. They depend on a long journey down the river, through estuary, and finally to the ocean. The population will survive if there are enough eggs to go upstream.
This unique life cycle combines the needs of freshwater and saltwater ecosystems. The returning fish return nutrients from the ocean to feed wildlife along the river. These remains are then distributed throughout the forest. The entire watershed begins to collapse without salmon.
Werschkull, months after he submitted his bid, marveled at the old growth forests still standing along the river’s south branch on a Wednesday afternoon. He can tell you the story of every Smith tributary and all the riverbank species.
This is what he said. He was displaying a large parcel map with color-coded labels. White squares indicate private land. Green, public. Highlighted in pink and yellow are hard-fought acquisitions by the timber companies.
The Mill Creek acquisition, which cost $60 million, was also completed. Then came the 9,500-acre acquisition at the mouth of Goose Creek. He proudly pointed at the most recent victory, 5,400 acres of Hurdygurdy Creek. This was land that a developer tried to purchase and turn into subdivisions. This deal took almost ten years to complete.
Werschkull, a former consultant for fish-and-wildlife officials, brings a refined touch to the politics behind funding and environmental bureaucracy. He is considered to be a power broker and has forged ambitious collaborations with his team to ensure that Smith remains one of the most beautiful. The Most beautiful river In the country
The final piece of the puzzle is to restore the river mouth. The estuary, which has been degraded over decades of dairy farming, is home to at most 38 fish species. The state wildlife officials noted that Reservation Ranch is home to three major tributaries, as well two crucial staging holes for salmon migrating.
Werschkull, along with his team, have spent years knocking at doors and negotiating win/win deals with property owners to repair a broken culvert that would allow fish passage, as well as the farm. They finally have a project underway at Reservation Ranch to restore Delilah Creek.
Despite their efforts to be friendly with everyone, even ranchers, there have been occasional suspicions. It’s not easy to be a conservationist at Del Norte. Many would rather use the land for their own economic benefit. Relationships have sometimes been strained with tribal leaders who challenge the idea that there is an unspoiled wilderness. It is not surprising that the public agencies charged with maintaining this wilderness are often underfunded.
Werschkull sighed. The jostling to get Reservation Ranch has been a long and complicated process since Smith River Alliance offered its offer. Werschkulls has decided to step back from a county in which he needs to be collegial with everyone. Maybe there will be an opportunity to weigh in later.
He stopped at the spring by the river to take a sip. The water was very sweet. He took a small sip, concentrating his thoughts on what to say next.
He said that he only wanted the best for the river. It is still to be determined who will take the lead role. I do hope it is a team of highly skilled people with a strong restoration focus.
In this old timber community, there is a bitter saying that no more private land should be made public. Today, more than 80% of Del Norte County’s land is under federal or state control, mostly as national forests, wildlife preserves, or parks.
Chris Howard, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, stated that our fishing fleets and timber grounds have been virtually eliminated. We also have what little of a dairy industry left here. People who are stuck at home trying to figure out their next meal from the nearest restaurant make a community that is very bitter.
Howard sat on the riverbank in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park and recalled arriving in Del Norte as the last sawmill closed down in the 1990s. Three hundred fifty people lost their jobs. The state and federal officials promised the nation that the tourism industry would become an economic savior. The Del Norte youth don’t return.
Howard gazed out over the water and pointed towards a towering redwood grove.
He stated that these trees don’t pay taxes. He points to another group. These trees don’t pay for our roads to remain open.
Howard, a trained zoologist, was first employed to study spotted and hawk owls in the timber industry. Howard became more concerned about the economic well-being of his community after logging was banned and there were so many people who didn’t have jobs.
He has been the Chamber of Commerce’s leader and served on many boards. He also oversaw economic development at Elk Valley Rancheria (a smaller tribal nation located near Crescent City). He has been most recently working with Alexandre Family Farm. This influential dairy farm is known for its organic and regenerative practices.
Critics claim that he’s become a walking conflict-of-interest. Others feel it’s hard to not live in such a small world.
Howard was careful when speaking to a reporter from a big, liberal city. He was also acutely aware of the fact that everyone in town knows everyone. He’s tired of seeing another issue explode in an already divided community. He is tired of Sacramento’s big government telling people what is best.
He’s been trying to broker a truce with the Westbrooks through Reservation Ranch. He would personally like to see the land reclaimed for agriculture.
It is possible to have a viable farm operation and still have large numbers of fish swimming up and downstream from the creeks. He said that it is possible. This would be a benefit to everyone, regardless of who it was owned.
It has not been easy for the Westbrooks to end what their family started generations ago.
Bobby Westbrook, who was interviewed by The Times after a long day of moving cows said that the reason he and Steven sold the ranch was simple: None our children want to return home and run it like we did.
Many of the allegations were dismissed by him. He and his brother reached an agreement to remove the manure from the estuary, and then use it as fertilizer. They also agreed that they would dispose of a pile of wood debris that had accumulated over a decade and conduct an estuary fish passage study in four key sections.
The sale remains in limbo while the remaining violations are resolved. Westbrook confirmed that they have leased ranch to the Alexandres for the moment. He and his brother are determined to ensure that their staff have jobs after they move on.
We want to sell the ranch to someone who would continue to grow the land. He said that we employ many people who have families to support. It is very important for us that the land goes directly to the right people.
Tolowa Dee’ni found it strange to play ball in such a small town. Bommelyn, the culture bearer said that his great-grandmother Delilah was a midwife who gave birth to Hank and Chopper Westbrook. (Yes, it is the same Delilah Creek that Werschkull worked with to restore the estuary.
Some tribal members have worked for and with the Westbrooks. Everyone seems to have their kids on the same school sports teams. The Westbrooks and tribal leaders sat together for years on the board at the local fish hatchery.
Although the Westbrooks have sold them land in past, it is still up for debate whether these were fair deals. The 65-acre Ship Ashore resort was home to a major village called Xaawan’-kwvt. The Tribal staff eventually shut down the operation and sought assistance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Some residents saw the shuttered Del Norte as Del Norte losing their jobs and land. The Tribal staff stated that they plan on reopening the site after they have cleaned up the contamination.
They are aware of the resentment at the Tolowa Deeni nation as another government taking land. They claim that this fear is misguided. Yes, they have managed to find funding over the years for reclaiming parts of their ancestral territory. But all in all, the tribal nation owns less that 960 acres. 875 acres of this they pay local taxes as everyone else.
Reservation Ranch is a large property that no group in Del Norte can afford. Everyone must see the benefits of working together for the future of the estuary.
There are many good jobs available there, said Tom Wheeler (executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center), a grassroots group that has been advocating a solution that reunites Tolowa and the land. I hope that we can recognize that the restoration economic is a good one for Del Norte County and embrace it and develop it, and not be hostile to its existing agricultural or timber community.
California, with its many conservation groups and environmental protection agencies, still needs to determine where a sovereign tribe or a rural community can fit into this ecosystem.
Wade Crowfoot, who oversees natural resource management in the state, stated that we need a paradigm shift and has been working with tribal nations to find better ways to work together. The modern conservation movement, which was born out of Earth Day, created the perception that environmental protection is about protecting nature from people. However, people have always been part nature.
Sandra Jerabek ruminated about the land and its inhabitants as she hiked to Lake Earl in the late afternoon, just south Yontocket.
These wetlands were once used for timber and then ranched before being purchased by the state in 1970s to bring them back to life. It is not known that this nature preserve was also the site for another massacre, which took place one year later in 1853.
After the destruction of their main village, the Tolowa people had gathered at Ee-chuu-le. Local militia again set fire to the Tolowas plank house as they slept and killed all who fled.
Some tried hiding in the lagoon but were shot as they ascended for safety. Seven layers of bodies were stacked up and burned.
Jerabek said, clutching a history text she had written notes and holding on to, “I always felt that it was our responsibility to educate the communities.” Although I love living here, there is a strange disconnect between the past and present.
Jerabek is the co-founder of Tolowa Dunes Stewards. He has spent the past two decades doing many of the same things that state parks and wildlife officials have never been able to do: pulling out invasive plants, making park signs, and working side-by-side the Tolowa.
As Jerabek contemplated the future, a marsh wren chirped in the distance. To her delight, she lowered herself and discovered a tiny yellow wallflower.
Her volunteers have pulled out root by root the vast amount of European beachgrass covering the coast for many years. This rare flower, which is believed to only be found in this remote corner California, now has the space it needs to grow.
The plant was so far gone that it required a new name. Jerabek knew exactly what to call all the new colors emerging from the land.
She named the flower, Tolowa Coast Wallflower after the people who have been there all along.