What Happened in Humbug Valley

A mountain tribe struggles to regain stewardship of its ancestral lands in the Northern Sierras

As a kid, Beverly Ogle traveled to Humbug Valley with her grandmother and her friends in an old Buick Roadmaster. Sometimes the old ladies let her drive even though she was only ten or eleven—this was the early 1950s after all—and she could hardly see over the hood. She drove high into the mountains, the Northern Sierras, while the elders gossiped in their native Maidu (“my-doo”) tongue, until the forest opened on a wide meadow where timothy grass and wild rye waved in the wind, the place where her grandmother was raised and generations of her ancestors were buried. The ladies taught Beverly how to gather the riches of the valley, like willows for basketry and ginger root for medicine. Her grandmother also taught her there are no rattlesnakes in Humbug Valley. Go five miles one way or five miles another, and you’ve got rattlesnakes, but not in Humbug Valley. Because of that, her grandmother said, and because of a natural soda spring that emerges there, the Mountain Maidu believe it to be a gifted place.

In October 2012, Beverly Ogle, now an elder herself, drove to Humbug Valley alone in a Ford Windstar. It was a fine morning; the Chips fire, which had burned more than 75,000 acres in the surrounding mountains since July, had smoldered away at last, and she was hoping to get a crew in to work on a fence to prevent vandalism of her ancestors’ graves. She was eager and hopeful, attending to the business at hand: making sure the crew knew how to navigate the maze of Forest Service roads to find the junction with the mile-long spur, along which the fence would be built.

Beverly arrived at the junction, where a slope of pine and cedar and fir—some as big around as oil drums—stood directly across from the sacred soda springs, and she faced a shock.  Loggers were felling trees across an ancient trail as heavy machinery charged over archaeological sites.

Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility that owns Humbug Valley—for now, at least—was “salvage logging,” a process with a nice ring to it. Who could object to harvesting trees after a wildfire, before they lose value? In this case, however, PG&E received an emergency permit from the state though many of the trees weren’t even singed; the fire that burned through Humbug Valley was a low-intensity back burn set by Forest Service crews to protect the same trees now being clear-cut.

But this story is not about salvage logging. It’s about sustainability.

The Maidu live in a corner of California so remote that even many Californians don’t know it exists; it’s drier than the redwood country to the west yet much more lush than the spare expanse of basin and range to the east. The Maidu, who divide themselves into valley, foothill, and mountain tribes, were once a rich tribe, with salmon and trout in their rivers and plenty of wild game—deer, bear, elk, and wild turkeys—as well as acorns, the mainstay of their diet, in the forest. They made exquisite baskets from gray willow and cottonwood and bear grass. The Mountain Maidu lived in small settlements in high Sierra valleys, along tributaries of the Feather River, the largest watershed in the state; they weathered hard winters and thrived in summer. But like Native Americans everywhere, they experienced unimaginable losses over two centuries: their land stolen, their rivers dammed, their people killed or dispersed.

“Diggers.” That’s what we used to call California Indians. Textbooks described them as small, loosely organized bands that never made the supposed evolutionary leap from hunting and gathering (and digging up roots, hence the name) to farming. These days, anthropologists speculate that frequent droughts may have kept them from planting staples like corn, beans, or squash, or maybe they preferred the more balanced diet that hunting and gathering provided, or maybe they chose a more seasonally balanced workload than all-summer farming would require. Whatever the reason, for decades, the Maidu were dismissed as Diggers.

Current membership in the tribe stands at about two thousand, which is either shockingly low, compared to the 310,000 Indians estimated to have lived in California before the Gold Rush, or shockingly high, considering what they’ve endured. The Maidu lack federal recognition—the hard-won status that gives tribes sovereignty, allowing them to make and enforce laws and, usually, to reclaim land—and many live poorly, but they’re still here.

And so, it turns out, is their traditional knowledge. At least some of it. In 1998, Congress sent out a nationwide call for programs to test “alternative techniques” on national forests, so the Maidu submitted a proposal using a brand new acronym getting bandied about in land management circles: TEK. Traditional Ecological Knowledge. The Forest Service snapped it right up.

I read about the Maidu and TEK, and latched onto the concept. I’d grown interested in reclamation, and this sounded like reclamation at its best: not just taking back land, but trying to make it better through work. That, more than anything, drew me in. Politics may sometimes baffle me, but as someone who’s spent much of her adult life on backcountry trail crews, I could relate to work—and the little I’d learned about TEK was all about work. The basic tenet was that humans have always worked the land—tended is the verb of choice—and, therefore, the methods for tending it sustainably might lie with those who’ve tended it longest: native people. So I arranged to speak with Lorena Gorbet, director of the Maidu Cultural and Development Group, and a few weeks later, I sat with her in a room with a telephone and a view across Puget Sound to Mt. Baker.

I expected her to talk about work; instead, she wanted to talk about talk. Lorena Gorbet is a 65-year-old native of Greenville, California, who has worked her whole life for nonprofit organizations. On the telephone, she tossed out government acronyms with the fluency of a native bureaucrat: NEPA, FERC, OHV. It didn’t take long to realize she speaks Forest Service as well as anybody, but she also speaks forest, and that has, on occasion, caused trouble.

When she first met with government officials about taking charge of 2,100 acres in the Plumas and Lassen national forests, Lorena explained, the officials started talking deadlines and quotas, treatments and acres, the kinds of details that go into a contract. What, exactly, did the Maidu plan to do? They didn’t know yet, she said. They’d have to go visit their relations and see what they said.

By relations, Lorena Gorbet did not mean the tribal elders. She meant the plants, the animals, the air, the wind, and the water. This was, by Forest Service standards, crazy talk.

“We needed to talk to them and listen and find out what they needed,” she told me.

“What did your relations say?” I asked.

“That they were hurting.”

In Forest Service terms, the place had been “heavily impacted” by illegal dumping, off-highway vehicle use, fire suppression then huge devastating fires, too much logging then too little. A highway ran through it. A railroad, too. The trees had grown tight and dark and silent. No birds sang; no animals rustled.

“Not like Humbug Valley,” she said.

At that point, I’d never heard of Humbug Valley. I scribbled the name in my notebook, underlined it three times, and returned to making sense of the stewardship project.

“What did your relations want you to do?”

“Let the sunlight in, let those tender plants grow, open it up to breathe.”

The Forest Service, Lorena pointed out, was only interested in conifers, the trees with a dollar value, so crews made a regular practice of clearing underbrush around them. But the Maidu wanted to cultivate willow and maple, too, for basketry, and berries for food. They wanted to prune oaks to encourage bushiness to increase acorn harvest. Most of all, they wanted to reintroduce fire. Here, scientists agreed. For almost three decades, research has attributed declines in forest health in California and elsewhere in the West to fire suppression. Nearly everyone believed fire needed to be restored. Only difference was, the Maidu had history on their side.

Turns out, the so-called Diggers did cultivate wild plants. They selectively harvested, pruned, and “coppiced” (cutting trees down repeatedly to a stump to encourage regrowth of multiple shoots). And they used fire. They’d burn in different seasons at different intensities for different effects. “Pyrodiversity,” it’s called. Maybe, one theory holds, they didn’t become crop farmers because fire and farming didn’t mix. And fire did a better job. With fire, California Indians could tend the entire landscape rather than particular crops.

“That’s how we used to do it,” Lorena told me. “The journals of Fremont and Kit Carson describe a forest that was open and parklike, where you could walk three abreast—and that wasn’t natural, we kept it that way. We’re finally getting people to see that.”

So fire needed to be restored. But how much? And when? The fuel loading had grown too heavy to allow for the kind of broadcast burns the Maidu would have set in the past. Instead, they’d have to burn piles or set smaller, lower intensity fires. Then, of course, file a report. Thinning required at least as much red tape. The process required more personnel than the Forest Service had. And when the Maidu asked for a ninety-nine-year contract? More crazy talk.

While the bureaucratic wheels creaked into motion, the Maidu went to work: thinning and burning and pruning. They held picnics and chili cook-offs and work parties where kids planted camas bulbs, the traditional native staple, harvested by permission—ironically enough—from local ranchers’ land.

  “We could see the difference in bringing humans back right away. The other animals came back, too: bear, deer, mountain lion, beaver, wild turkeys,” she said. “Even wild turkeys,” she repeated.

When Lorena Gorbet talked about the turkeys, and every time she talked about her “relations” with such easy, earnest clarity, a lump lodged hard in my throat. Part of it was plain discomfort. There were New Age stereotypes to reckon with, like the ecologically correct Indian personified by the handsome actor weeping over litter on 1970s TV, or The Secret Life of Plants, the bestselling manifesto that got housewives talking to houseplants. But there was more: there’s discomfort in the truth. All the talk about talk might be crazy in a way. But not that crazy.

Anyone who’s worked on the land—tucking seeds into soil, pruning roses back by leaves of five, harvesting morels or maples, tending apple trees or straight tall firs—knows this much: it takes time and patience to understand what works best, and while some broad concepts can be applied, the devil, so to speak, is in the details, and one of the details is how to talk about it. Oh, we have plenty of words. Ecology for nature, community for people. Symbiosis for the scientists, balance for the Buddhists. Restoration. Reclamation. Big words with big meanings, which slip into and over one another, dimming and limning, like morning light shifting over the green fringe of forest where the trees have grown too tight, trying to find a way in.

“It’s just part of your DNA: you have to take care of it. Most Indian people feel this way.”

Lorena said this in the practiced way of someone who’s been interviewed many times, but I knew what she meant. Indians have a different understanding of the natural world and a million ways to talk about it, as many ways as Americans haveto talk about money or Jesus or baseball or literature. The things we love. When Lorena talked about her relations, she meant it in the same dead-serious way Catholics do when they say the Eucharist is the body of Christ. Not a figure of speech, not a metaphor. The real thing. The most real thing.

I’d wanted the Maidu story to be all about work—shovels and chainsaws and pruners—but maybe, I thought, reclaiming the talk was the more important step.

I was wrong.

“That’s why we need Humbug Valley,” Lorena said.

This time, I did not let the reference slip past me.

“What’s with Humbug Valley?”

Humbug, she explained, is one of those high valleys of the Sierra Nevada, at nearly 4,500 feet, and is considered sacred by the Maidu.

“And it’s still pristine,” she said.

She said this word—pristine—with wonder, near-incredulity. Starting in the 1920s, many of the tributaries of the Feather River were flooded for hydropower and irrigation, but in Humbug Valley, there wasn’t enough water to justify a dam. So it was spared. Even now, Lorena told me, there is still a healthy forest in Humbug Valley, and the naturally carbonated spring, and grinding pits and graves—all a testament to the Mountain Maidu who’ve cherished it for so long.

Only problem is, Humbug Valley has been owned, for the last hundred years, by PG&E.

“Plunder, grab, and extort,” Lorena quipped.

That was about to change. The huge utility went belly up in 2001 as a result of the energy deregulation debacle and was directed to sell off about a thousand parcels of land, including many in the Feather River basin. According to the bankruptcy settlement, about half of the land would go to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but the rest would go to agencies or nonprofits to be managed for the public benefit. That part of the land included nearly 8,000 acres around Lake Almanor.

It also, miraculously, included Humbug Valley, and if I wanted to learn more about that, she suggested I talk to someone who knew the place intimately.

“You need to meet Beverly Ogle,” Lorena said.

I traveled in the spring, descending from the Sierras, through rain and a hard wind, into the rolling oak-spackled hills of the Sacramento River Valley. Not far from tiny Paynes Creek, where Beverly Ogle lives—sixty miles west of Humbug Valley and three thousand feet lower—I drove past six egrets standing in a field, wings tucked in tight as the wind blew hard through a barbed wire fence. What, I wondered, could they possibly be doing out there so exposed?

I arrived at her two-story farmhouse and tried to enter through a chain-link gate by pushing the wrong direction over thick sod before realizing it needed to be pulled. When I looked up, I saw Beverly peeking out the window from behind a curtain, watching me navigate, smiling without guile. She waved me in.

“Where would you like to sit?” she asked.

I gazed around the room. Every available surface was covered with books and notebooks, the familiar paper-piled decor of an insatiable learner. Beverly Ogle is an author and an activist, a descendant of Atsugewi Pit River and Mountain Maidu and German Dutch people. Her two books, Spirits of Blackrock and Whisper of the Maidu, meld native history and settler history and memoir with humor and precision. She leads courses for the Sierra Institute, speaks at conferences, and is the vice chairperson of the Maidu Summit Consortium. She’s seventy-one years old and apparently tireless.

“Maybe the kitchen,” she said.

She moved slowly, cane in hand. When we reached the kitchen, she sat and crossed her arms, her blue-eyed gaze sharp and steady, and she began to talk about Humbug Valley.

Around 1860, she said, the place was flooded with gold miners and pioneers, and the Indian people retreated, hoping the whites would just move on through.

“When they saw that wasn’t happening, they saw the inevitable, so they more or less accepted that and tried to become friends.”

Her conclusion surprised me, considering the magnitude of the loss. They were good people, really, these early settlers, she insisted. Her great-grandfather worked for whites regularly: he cut shakes, killed bears, and rendered lard to grease sled runners. He taught people how to live in mountain country: how to snowshoe and trap. There was no hostility on either side. Not at first. Not the way her grandmother told the story.

After a time, changes came hard in the Feather River basin: more mining, more railroads, more dams. Most of it bypassed Humbug Valley, but by the early 1950s, things were changing even there: the campground was built, and tourists swarmed in. I asked if there was heartbreak in it for her grandmother, and she insisted there wasn’t, that her grandmother generally accepted things, kept her feelings to herself, and moved on.

When, late in life, Beverly Ogle took a job as campground host in Humbug Valley, she saw plenty of misbehavior: loud and drunk campers, off-highway vehicle riders who zipped through the meadows and tore up vegetation. She worked with PG&E to have a fence constructed to keep grazing cattle from tromping on Maidu graves. She hauled water to put out abandoned campfires. Mostly, she talked. When people heard she was Maidu and that her family had history in the valley, they’d hit her with a familiar barrage of questions. But she didn’t mind. She loved the place, and she loved the job.

Then came the day, in 2003, in the wake of the bankruptcy settlement, when PG&E representatives showed up in Humbug Valley to discuss potential new owners. “Stewards,” they’d be called, since a conservation easement would accompany the title transfer. They’d invited a dozen or more officials from government agencies and nonprofits to attend—but not the Maidu.

Beverly Ogle knew exactly what to do.

“We sneaked in,” she told me with a chuckle. “I was working out there. I heard there was gonna be this meeting—all these big people—and I called Lorena and said, ‘Did you hear? Did you know?’ She said, ‘No, but we’ll crash the party.’”

Beverly Ogle and Lorena Gorbet and a young man named Farrell Cunningham, only twenty-seven but an up-and-coming tribal leader and one of the last three remaining speakers of the Maidu language, showed up uninvited.

“They must’ve been surprised to see you,” I said.

“They were,” she said, “but there was a lot of work that went on before we got included.”

Much of that work had to be done through the Maidu Summit Consortium. Nine established groups associated with the tribe had joined forces to form the nonprofit a few years earlier to try to circumvent the disadvantages of having no central governing body or common land base. Before they did, outsiders—government officials or private grant foundations—claimed they didn’t know who to talk to. There were so many different bands of Maidu, different factions. Not all of them were easy to get along with. Not all got along with one another.

“We all had to pull in the right direction,” Beverly said. “Like the old saying: if you take two twigs, you can bust them, but you put a bunch together, it’s harder to bust.”

For ten years—ten years—members of the Maidu Summit attended meetings and submitted proposals and completed projects in Humbug Valley, aimed at proving themselves capable and as deserving of the land as more-established entities. As of last March, it seemed very close. The only other agency still in contention for stewardship of the land was the California Department of Fish and Game. If that agency were to take over, it’d be the 111th parcel they’d control, with a budget supported by 37 million California residents. If the Maidu Summit did, it’d be the first chunk of their homeland the two thousand remaining Mountain Maidu have reclaimed. Ever.

“We’ve come a long way,” Beverly Ogle said. “I just wish my grandma could wake up from her grave and see what’s happening. She’d be surprised.”

A decision was expected within a year. Then came the Chips fire.

When Beverly Ohle realized PG&E had a full-scale logging operation in process, she hopped out of her car and confronted the archaeologist and the forester, who were both on site.

  “Why didn’t you contact us?”

They said they’d sent out notices. Of course they had. They sent them via snail mail on Friday. Today was Monday, and the logging was in full swing.

“I suggest that you halt operations,” she said.

Some newspapers later reported that they did. Beverly Ogle insists they did not. The logging continued until they’d cut every tree in the 218-acre unit.

The operation gleaned a smooth $500,000.

I know the truth: possession is 9/10ths of the law. It doesn’t matter that judges decided a decade ago that PG&E must relinquish Humbug Valley or that the salvage logging was a transparent attempt to milk every drop of profit before doing so. It matters only that on paper Humbug Valley still belongs to PG&E. Still, I told anyone who would listen. I penned op-eds and sent them to dozens of newspapers, including The New York Times. No one responded. The story made it as far as Sacramento and Chico, but no farther. I grew frustrated, nearly apoplectic. How could our laws allow giftedness to be cut down like tall pines and hauled out on trucks? This was not right.

A thoughtful friend tried to empathize. “I’ve never failed to be impressed by the sheer mendaciousness of corporations when it comes to profit,” he said.

I knew what he meant: this is the way it is. And I knew what he thought, since I’d thought it myself: my outrage stemmed from naiveté. This naiveté, this faith that happy endings are deserved, seemed as shameful and as distinctly American as the wholesale greed that had exposed it. But it was not American. Beverly Ogle is American.

I called her later that winter.

The Maidu Summit Consortium had held a meeting with the Plumas County Board of Supervisors, who hold jurisdiction over what happens on private lands, and the meeting went well, she said. The Maidu were hoping for some kind of restitution or at least recrimination. Meanwhile, they were still hoping to reclaim the land and to start tending it. For starters, they needed to put straw on the hillsides, she said, to prevent erosion. Then they needed to replant.

Beverly told me she was angry, but she didn’t sound angry. She told me she was sad, but she didn’t sound sad. She sounded steadfast, strategic, realistic.

What happened in Humbug Valley seemed to me the worst outcome imaginable. But the people who were once called Diggers have seen worse. The traditional knowledge they hold goes beyond ecological; it’s about how to survive in a world of grief. You attend meetings and honor the old ways and welcome strangers into your home. You confront when you need to confront. You stare clear-eyed into the past and into the future. You don’t overestimate what you can do. You don’t underestimate either. That long view, that excruciating endurance, is the key to sustainability, more crucial than any innovation and harder to cultivate by a long shot.

“What would’ve happened,” Beverly asked me, “if I hadn’t shown up that day?”

Part of me thought: same damned thing.

Part of me thought: the truth would never have been told.

Beverly Ogle’s next book—her last, she claims—will be about the Indian boarding schools. She collected the stories as a child, sitting quietly while the adults talked, writing with a pencil stub on scraps of cardboard boxes the stories of children taken from their homes, stripped of language and culture and dignity. She wasn’t the best speller, she says, and sometimes the adults were speaking Maidu and she tried to spell it out phonetically. Her notes are hard to decipher, but she is trying. Hard as it is, she said, the truth must be told.

When it came time to leave her home in Paynes Creek, I jogged outside jacketless to get a baggie of home-dried apples, a meager gift. The sky had darkened with the edge of dusk. I offered the apples, and Beverly thanked me and asked if we also grew cherries. I said we did and that I’d send some in early summer. She said she’d send gooseberries. Did we have those? No, I said. So it’d make a good trade. We shook on it.

I drove into rain that would not let up. I headed back toward the mountains and passed the egrets still standing like sentries, tucked in and exposed in the exact same place, their feathers ruffling madly in the wind, their legs seeming too spindly to hold them up. It came to me later— what other explanation could there be?—that they must’ve had eggs, that they were protecting something precious, something gifted and in peril. What else is there, ever, to do?


On November 14, 2013, members of the Maidu Summit Consortium learned they’d been chosen as owners and stewards of 2,325 acres in Humbug Valley. At the celebration that followed, Beverly Ogle was presented a handcrafted bow as a special lifetime achievement award. She will receive arrows for it in early summer, when the snow melts away and the Maidu return to Humbug Valley to talk to their relations and begin the work ahead.

About the Author

Ana Maria Spagna

Ana Maria Spagna lives in the North Cascades, where she writes about nature, work, civil rights, and community. This essay is excerpted from her work-in-progress, Reclaimers.

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