Thursday, March 24, 2005


Funding in place for conservancy to buy ancient fishing site


The Desert Sun
By Benjamin Spillman
March 22, 2005

Lonely, wind-blown creosote and rocks baked brown by the Southern California desert sun don't immediately conjure images of a bustling seaside village.

But shells scattered between the boulders and scrubby brush of one of the hottest, driest places in North America aren't a mirage.

They're evidence of an ancient lake where the earliest residents of the Colorado desert hauled in catches that would have included razorback suckers and bonytail chub.

Now descendents of those early fishermen are reclaiming physical evidence of their ancestors' fishing acumen.
A San Francisco-based conservation group called The Trust for Public Land expects to close a deal this week on 360 acres that includes fish traps built along the former shoreline.

"It is not just Indian history, it is California history," said Carmen Lucas, an elder in the Kwaaymii culture and member of the Laguna Band of Mission Indians, who visited the site Monday.

The current land deal includes 360 acres that will eventually become part of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. But the group behind it says another 4,000 acres is slated for preservation.

If the second deal closes it would be among the largest conservation deals of its kind in the region.

The idea is to buy the land and preserve the fish traps for educational purposes.

A group with local ties called the Native American Land Conservancy contacted the San Francisco group about the fish traps area.

The Trust for Public Land will give an archeological conservancy $179,600 for the first 360 acres. The group has an option to buy the other 4,000 acres. Alex Tynberg, the project manager for the deal, said he expects that will cost about $1.2 to $1.4 million.

The archeological conservancy had bought the land from a private owner to preserve the fish traps. Buying it from that group for the park means it will be part of a permanently protected landscape.

Tynberg said the Trust for Public Land is different from conservation groups that focus on wildlife.

That's because the group concentrates on buying and preserving land that is valuable to people for cultural, historic or spiritual reasons.

"It is connecting land with people," Tynberg said. "You have urban parks, you have suburban green space and you have these wide open wildlife areas."

Left alone, the fish traps and other archeological resources could be vulnerable to damage from off-road driving and other human disturbances.

An earth mover has already torn through some of the traps.

But once the land is part of the park, access will likely remain limited to a few Jeep roads and desert washes.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Superintendent Mark Jorgensen said even a lone dirt bike can scar the sun-baked patina that's cooked onto the sound by the sun.

"The tracks will be there for generations," Jorgensen said. "It is like driving on wet cement."

It has been centuries since Lake Cahuilla receded, leaving a visible water line on the nearby Santa Rosa Mountains.

But visiting the fish traps - pointed rock arrangements where tribal people may have herded fish - it is easy to envision the shoreline.

Shells dot the ground and many rocks still sport a layer of tufa, a hardened lime deposit that forms along freshwater shorelines.

During the trip group members theorized about how ancient people might have used the traps and considered what contemporary Californians could learn from the land.

Lucas said saving evidence of early Californians' relationship with nature preserves lessons that are relevant to daily lives of people today.

"It makes them aware there is more to life than big money, big trucks, big recreational things and a material life," Lucas said.

Mike Madrigal, a member of the Cahuilla Band of Indians near Anza, said the site helped him visualize his ancestors' lifestyle.

"Having something to look at and experience is a big difference," said Madrigal. "It is completely different than reading something in a book."

Alvin Warren, director of the tribal lands program for the trust, said non-Indians would also benefit from visiting the fish traps.

Warren, who is a member of a tribe near Santa Fe, New Mexico, said people who know the cultural features of an area gain a deeper appreciation for the physical landscape.

"It is not empty," he said of the desolate land. "This is a desert landscape with tremendous features. But you have to have your eyes open to really see them."


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