Natural Resources

Fall 2011 Natural Resources Law Class at UB

An Alternative to a State-administered Public Trust November 16, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Chris Szczygiel @ 8:31 pm

We have seen in class that some lands are required to be held, maintained and made accessible because of a public trust imposed on state governments.  However, this is not the only way that lands can be maintained, and not always be the best way.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about a struggle for some undeveloped lands in Northern California (a link to the article is not directly cited because I’m scared of their lawyers).  The article caught my eye because the lands at issue are located within the Humbug Valley.  Humbug Valley.

Turn on that radio station that’s already playing Christmas music and say it again.  Humbug Valley.

In any case, there are deeper issues involved.  The land was occupied by a Native American group who identified themselves as the Maidu; however, by the 1920’s they had all been forced out  by white settlers.  Some small groups have received Federal recognition of their Native American status, but as often happens, not all of the Maidu have, and none of them have been returned their historical stomping grounds.

In recent decades, some Indian groups have sought to buy back lands that are important to them.  However, unlike the Seneca in our region, or other outfits with casino and cigarette revenues, these groups often do not have enough money.  Frequently, even if they could reach the asking price, a private developer would be right there to outbid them.  The result was that Indian lands slipped through their hands once again, and they were barred in some cases from sacred or historically important sites.

Humbug Valley.

However, an even more recent trend is for a tribe or unrecognized Indian group to team up with nonprofits and even the government (there’s irony).  The Native Americans agree to some restrictions  on their use of the land, usually to preserve it’s character and not to exclude everybody else, and receive financial assistance in return.  Though some Native Americans chafe at the thought of buying back what was wrongfully taken from them, at least some recognize “a dark reality: If you don’t pay for this, it will be destroyed.”

To provide a final twist, a number of Maidu groups have organized themselves into a nonprofit organization, in order to qualify for grants.

The Humbug Valley is up for grabs because the Pacific Gas & Electric Company went belly up in 2001.  As part of their bankruptcy settlement, they were required to give “much” of their undeveloped land, including Humbug Valley, to organizations that will preserve them as wildlands.

Currently, the State of California and the Maidu are wrangling over the Humbug property.  The state argues that it has “deep experience managing land,” and they have a good point here.

The Maidu, and even the Stewardship Council assigned to oversee transfer of the property, argue that the state has seen some serious budget cuts, and “[t]here are always questions now about whether government agencies will be able to carry out their land management duties.”  This is probably a better point than previous experience.  In any case, the ironic justice of this situation is too unique to let fall by the wayside.

For now, the Maidu have the upper hand — they have been granted up to $200,000 to “improve facilities” (apparently there is a campground on the property), and demonstrate that they can manage them.