Fostering Indigenous Co-Stewardship of Public Lands

People holding hands in a circle on a hill

On a sunny Wednesday morning in Rohnert Park, California, Tribal leaders, Indigenous culture bearers, academics, and representatives of land management agencies from the places now known as the United States, Canada, and Mexico gathered for a two-day event focused on creating substantive, long-term agreements for Indigenous co-stewardship of public lands. Some attendees were meeting for the first time at The Event at Graton Resort and Casino, some were enjoying seeing collaborators in person after many meetings held via Zoom, and some renewed long standing relationships after too much time apart. 

Titled “Indigenous Co-Stewardship of Public Lands: Lessons for the Future,” the event was presented in partnership by the California Biodiversity Network (CBN) and the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria (FIGR), with grants from the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation and Resources Legacy Fund. FIGR’s significant contributions included providing the conference facility, planning, technology, food, and field transportation. Event partners included  the UC Berkeley Institute for Parks, People, and Biodiversity, California Natural Resource Agency (CNRA), The Stewardship Network, Hispanic Access Foundation, Native California Research Institute, East Bay Regional Park District, Indigenous Stewardship Network, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and 30x30 California. 

The agenda included presentations on substantive, long-term co-stewardship agreements, hearing from proven communities of practice about co-management models, and offering attendees the opportunity to visit and learn about long-term co-management agreements initiated by FIGR at two Northern California places designated as public parks.

Advancing conservation, access, and resilience through Tribal partnerships

During the event’s opening remarks, Dr. Ana Alvarez, Deputy General Manager of the East Bay Regional Park District and a member of the California Biodiversity Network steering committee, referred to the Pathways to 30x30 report, issued by the CNRA on Earth Day 2022 that outlines priorities to advance the conservation of 30% of California lands and coastal waters by 2030, with three key objectives: protect and restore biodiversity, expand access to nature, and mitigate and build resilience to a changing environment through nature-based solutions. She said the report stressed that these objectives should be pursued while embracing a commitment to strengthening partnerships with California Native American Tribes. The conference aimed to address research priorities from the report and was intended to “spark a paradigm shift, laying the foundation for meaningful and mutually beneficial Tribal management and co-management of public lands by creating the opportunity to learn from successful models,” said Alvarez. 

Dr. Beverly R. Ortiz, Chair of the Native California Research Institute, also provided perspective as the event began. “Before there were public lands, before there was this thing called co-stewardship and co-management of public lands, there was stewardship of land. There was Traditional Ecological Knowledge. There were culture bearers,” she said. “It was a system of relationships—with creation, with previous generations, with plants, other animals, the minerals, the rocks.” Ortiz went on to acknowledge the “tremendous upheaval and change that Native people have endured, survived, and thrived through because of the generosity, the caring with kindness, the goodness of the elders.” It is these culture bearers and these elders, she said, whose resilience and forward-thinking formed the basis of all that’s being done related to co-stewardship today. 

Miracles, Healers

The Honorable Greg Sarris, Chair of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. Photo by Lobsang Wangdu.

Next, The Honorable Greg Sarris, Chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, spoke of Spanish and then Mexican colonization of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo Tribes of Marin and Sonoma Counties. “What happened to the people happened to the land,” he said. “As we were put in missions, new species of grasses colonized the Indigenous grasses.” He further discussed the enslavement of Indigenous people through indentured servitude, vagrancy laws, and convict leasing, and how the state of California continued the environmental degradation started during colonization. “The water table in the area was lowered by 50 feet, and the last grizzly bear was killed,” he said. “By the 20th century, only 5 to10% of the Indigenous population remained, and the same percent of the original redwood grove was left,” he said. “The land was radically changed.” 

Sarris referenced a term in Kashaya, the language of the Western Pomo, which referred to white people as “miracles.” Elders told him they called white people “miracles” because they’d always believed that if you harm nature or one another, something would come for you—you’d “get fixed.” But the white people arrived—killing animals and people, chopping down the trees, damming the water—and instead of getting punished, more of them kept coming. “Today, as we know, nobody turns out to be a miracle, because in fact, it's all coming back on all of us,” Sarris said. “There is no water, there is no air that isn’t poisoned. We know that we and future generations are being punished. But today we gather as Indian and non-Indian alike and want to change that. We know that we are all in this together. Luckily and miraculously, Indigenous knowledge survives. We can share.”

Sarris then described co-stewardship of public lands as an avenue to begin to heal the extreme damage done to both the land and the people.  He outlined the two co-stewardship agreements that FIGR has made. One, at Tolay Lake Regional Park in Sonoma County, is believed to be the first of its kind in California between a local government and a federally recognized tribe. The second is a precedent-setting agreement with Point Reyes National Seashore and the National Park Service. Sarris noted that the most important thing when negotiating co-stewardship agreements is that Tribes have at least 50/50 control, and even more when it comes to sacred spaces. “Co-management can’t be where we’re just advisors invited to the table but somebody else has power,” he said. “You make sure that regarding sacred sites, restoration, land use…that you have equal power to whatever agency you’re working with.”

He closed by acknowledging that the goal cannot be to restore everything to how it used to be. “There has been so much destruction that we need to work together to go piece by piece to restore and heal the land,” he said. “Just as none of us are miracles, all of us can become healers.”

California, U.S., and International Agreements

The event then focused on the topic of co-stewardship in present-day California, including presentations detailing: 

  • co-management at Point Reyes National Seashore; 
  • how the Karuk Tribe is moving from co-stewardship to co-management; 
  • the formal co-stewardship agreements between the Mooretown Rancheria of Maidu Indians and the Bureau of Land Management; and
  • expanding opportunities for Tribal partnerships with California State Parks. 
Cynthia Wilson (Diné), PhD student in ESPM, speaking stewardship efforts

Many lessons learned, examples, and useful resources were shared, including the Karuk Tribe’s climate adaptation plan and resources related to how to approach possible agreements at the state park level. 

Next, the presentations broadened scope to agreements in other states in the U.S., with sessions moderated by Patrick Gonzalez, Director of the UC Berkeley Institute for Parks, People, and Biodiversity. These included discussions on:

  • grassroots strategies at Bears Ears National Monument, Utah; 
  • co-stewardship of Grand Portage National Monument on Lake Superior between the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the National Park Service; and
  • formal funding agreements for co-stewardship of the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska between the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Cynthia Wilson (Diné), a PhD student in UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management began the conversation on co-stewardship efforts at Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. Wilson is a founding member of the Women of Bears Ears initiative, which seeks to restore Indigenous women’s matrilineal roles and rematriate the earth. She has been active in the efforts to establish Bears Ears as a National Monument. Wilson illustrated how changing presidential administrations have affected Bears Ears, with President Obama designating the 1.36 million acre monument in 2016 followed by President Trump reducing the monument’s size by 85%, and then President Biden reinstating the monument to its original acreage. Due to the controversy, signs were not posted at the monument until about a year ago, she said.

“The presidential proclamation highlighted that Traditional Ecological Knowledge is itself a resource to be protected, and to use for understanding and managing this landscape sustainably for generations to come,” Wilson said, adding that “the land itself is essential to each of our cultures and tribal nations.” She continued to describe how Tribes in the area of Bears Ears interact with the land. “Our ceremonies originated from this place; we go there for firewood, medicine, for food, for art,” she said. “Part of this movement is this place being a living landscape. It's really that restoring that symbiotic relationship of the land and of the people.”

She highlighted the restorative relationships, saying “access to the land is more important than highlighting Indigenous knowledge, because we don't share our knowledge—we practice it. We need to be actively present on these lands for healing of the people and healing of the land.” 

Wilson described some activities that exemplify restoring a relationship to cultural resources, including a study on firewood research that consulted with elders; her work rematriating Solanum jamesii, a tiny white potato that is an ancestral food documented 11,000 years ago in the southwest region; and a New York Times Op-Ed published by the Women of Bears Ears.

Co-presenter Gavin Noyes, Arts, Advocacy, and Healing Program Coordinator with the nonprofit INDIGENOUS LED, discussed the importance of nonprofit organizations—in addition to federal and state agencies—in supporting co-stewardship movements. He stressed that nonprofits can be especially helpful when Tribes have little capacity and infrastructure to advance their goals of protecting public lands. 

A woman and a man are both speakers or presenters

After a lunch break during which attendees continued to make connections and share ideas, afternoon presentations turned toward co-stewardship of public lands internationally.  These sessions were moderated by Jonathan Jarvis, board chairman of the Institute for Parks, People, and Biodiversity. Speakers discussed: 

  • Formal management agreements between First Nations and Parks Canada;
  • Community-led conservation collaborations between Indigenous and Local Communities in the Yucatan Peninsula; and 
  • Biocultural governance in the Mayan Region of Puuc

Inspiration and Activation

The day’s presentations ended with a Q&A session and an opportunity for open-mic audience reflections, which included discussion of how co-stewardship works with Tribes that are not federally recognized as well as attendees expressing thanks for the resources shared throughout the day.

Jon Jarvis noted that a forthcoming issue of Parks Stewardship Forum, a free online publication of the Institute for Parks, People, and Biodiversity and the George Wright Society, will capture the ideas, lessons, and models mentioned during the conference and make them available in 2025. “The issue will focus on how to scale, and push for every agency to enter into an agreement that truly creates co-stewardship,” he said. 

Don Hankins (Plains Miwok), Co-Lead of the Indigenous Stewardship Network, urged attendees to use this event as an activator, and go on to explore opportunities to push new boundaries and forge new arrangements. “We came to the meeting; now what's the action we will take?” he said. 

Traditional artifacts


The day’s formal events were followed by a reception hosted by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, during which attendees could take in several cultural presentations, visit cultural display tables, and sample cultural foods. The following day, field trips to Point Reyes National Seashore or Tolay Lake Regional Park allowed members of FIGR to elaborate on their historic co-stewardship efforts on those lands. At Tolay Lake, park staff shared stories of the many years of dialog, building relationships, and identifying common visions and goals for the park. The PhD work of ESPM assistant professor Peter Nelson, which documented archeological evidence of Indigenous communities who lived on the land, was also discussed. In addition, speakers noted that last year fire was restored to the park’s grasslands for the first time since Spanish colonization.

In comments concluding the formal proceedings of the day, Gregg Castro, (t’rowt’raahl Salinan/rumsien-ramaytush Ohlone), Vice-Chair of the Native California Research Institute, noted that a resounding theme throughout the day was on the importance of relationships, and stressed the value of the work being done. “It's not an easy road, but it's the right road,” he said. “It's not business to us…it's our heart and spirit that we put into this. We’ve learned the tools of business in this new world that we have to live in, but it's who we are and what we do. We’re not from the land, we’re of the land, and the land is of us. And that’s the only way we can do it.”

People in group where one i holding up a poster, and in the second picture there are two people squatted down on grass observing a frog