July 27, 2020

In Big Sur, a big win for the Esselen Tribe and the Little Sur River

Photography | Kodiak Greenwood

Just beyond earshot of the crashing waves of the Big Sur coast, Western Rivers Conservancy has completed an unprecedented conservation project that establishes a sanctuary for imperiled fish, wildlife and Native American culture along Central California’s Little Sur River.

Last week we transferred 1,199 acres of spectacular oak woodlands and redwood-shaded riverbanks to the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County. The tribe has been landless for 250 years, and this was the first parcel returned to the Esselen people since they were displaced by the Spanish centuries ago.

In partnership with the tribe, our efforts protect a mile of the Little Sur River, which is considered one of the most vital steelhead streams remaining on the south-central coast. Historically, steelhead returns on California’s Central Coast numbered in the tens of thousands, but today it is likely that fewer than 100 fish return to the Little Sur River each year. Ensuring this river stays intact and healthy is critical to the long-term survival of these imperiled fish.

In addition to its prime steelhead-spawning areas, the ranch features ridgetop grasslands, oak woodlands, chaparral, madrone forest and giant redwoods that provide ideal feeding and nesting habitat for endangered California condor, which are expanding into the area.

As throughout Big Sur, the redwoods on the property are some of the southernmost stands on Earth. These resilient trees are uniquely adapted to Big Sur’s warmer, arid climate. In the face of climate change, these redwoods may hold the genetic key to sustaining redwood groves on California’s North Coast, where redwoods are more vulnerable to a changing climate.

With completion of the project, the Esselen people now have nearly two square miles of Big Sur, at the heart of the tribe’s ancestral domain, to call their own. Although this is a fraction of the tribe’s former territory, it is enough to allow the Esselen to rebuild a traditional village site, reinvigorate tribal culture, conduct traditional ceremonies, provide educational opportunities to tribal members, and host educational events to teach visitors about tribal culture and history.

In this magnificent location, where condors sail over ancient redwoods above a handful of the last pristine southern steelhead streams that still flow freely to the sea, WRC’s and the Esselen’s partnership is a landmark accomplishment. It will benefit wild steelhead, Big Sur’s imperiled wildlife and the tribe’s own cultural resurgence for generations to come.

You can read more about our historic achievement on the Little Sur River elsewhere online. The project was covered by publications all over the country, from the Monterey County Weekly and The Mercury News to the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Guardian, CNN and People magazine.

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