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The Yurok tribe regains Redwood park land to create their own historical park


An important parcel of land in Northern California is set to be returned to the Yurok Tribe, which has already begun to restore the property to nature. The tribe will manage the land with help from the National Park Service and California State Parks in the first arrangement of its kind. North State Public Radio's Alec Stutson has the story.

ALEC STUTSON, BYLINE: Just off the Northern California coast, nestled against the edge of Redwood National and State Parks, is a place the Yurok Tribe calls ‘O Rew. The agreement to repatriate the 125 acres to the Yurok Tribe was finalized earlier this month. Steve Mietz, superintendent of Redwood National and State Parks, says this deepens the relationship between his office and the tribe.

STEVE MIETZ: Usually, that was the tribe coming to National Park Service lands and providing their expertise. Now it's going to be flipped around a little bit that they're the owners, and the Park Service is going to provide our help and support to the Yurok.

STUTSON: The tribe will create a series of trails that connect to the Redwood National and State Parks nearby. And the tribe hopes to build a cultural center to educate people about tribal history. Rosie Clayburn is the tribe's cultural resources director.

ROSIE CLAYBURN: It's an important piece. Every piece is really important. And, you know, Yurok will always continue to fight to regain all of our ancestral territory back. That's not a hidden fact. It's written into our constitution (laughter). That's our mandate we work on every day here.

STUTSON: It's an important piece of land for the tribe culturally, and it was used as a hub for trade.

PHILLIP WILLIAMS: In ancient times, it would have been a meeting place 'cause all of our trails converge at that one area.

STUTSON: That's Phillip Williams, a tribal council member. He says Prairie Creek, which runs through the land, was a vital source of salmon and trout.

WILLIAMS: All the rivers and creeks along the coast, you know, they were a food source and materials - you know, basket materials, medicines. Basically that was our grocery store and our refrigerator.

STUTSON: But the land, like many other parts of the tribe's territory, was stolen from them and badly damaged during the 19th century gold rush and by timber companies. ‘O Rew, in particular, was later the site of a sawmill, one that Williams worked at when he was younger. He says the mill ravaged the land and the river.

WILLIAMS: The sawmill was a dirty place. It had oils and chemicals, and things spilled all over. And so our waterways were considered dump sites where they would just pour whatever waste they had into the creek, into the waterways, and pollute it.

STUTSON: The timber mill stopped operating in 2009, but its footprint still scars the land. Giant slabs of asphalt and concrete foundations remain, along with a few collapsing structures. After the mill shut down, the property was purchased in 2013 by the nonprofit Save the Redwoods League. They partnered with the Yurok to start the yearslong process of restoring the land. Native grasses and trees have been planted all along the riverbank, and crews continue to remove invasive plants elsewhere on the land. Laura Lalemand is a senior scientist with Save the Redwoods League.

LAURA LALEMAND: Another big part of the project is creating juvenile fish habitat, and so that's created optional ponds, backwater areas and other features in the stream that allow spaces for juvenile fish to rear.

STUTSON: Prairie Creek, before the restoration began, had very steep banks and flowed too fast. But now the stream is flowing healthily.


STUTSON: It's got bends, curves and shallow pools. Council member Williams says the effects of the restoration are already apparent.

WILLIAMS: There's a reward, a cherry on top when you see fish move right in there immediately and start using the habitat that we just built.

STUTSON: The Yurok will continue restoring the land in partnership with Save the Redwoods League and will formally take ownership of the land in 2026.

For NPR News, I'm Alec Stutson in Orick, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAC DEMARCO SONG, "BLUE BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alec Stutson