By Andrea Stuart | Photos by Kodiak Greenwood Acorns and leaves fall to the ground, giving fertility to the forest floor. Winds sweep in from the coastal west, carrying seeds that burrow into soil. And rains bring hydration, allowing earth-dwelling organisms to transmute death into life.
The elements of life are in a perennial dance; one celebrated for over 10,000 years by the indigenous people of what is now known as Monterey County. Composed of Esselen, Rumsen, Chalone, Sureño, Chunchunes, and Guatcharrone people, the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County (ETMC) is an assemblage of ancient tribal groups whose reverence for the Big Sur wilderness area of the Santa Lucia Mountains—in what is now part of the Los Padres National Forest—has informed their beliefs and traditions over the millennia. Since the 1700s, when native tribes in the Santa Lucia Mountains were displaced, becoming vassals and forced laborers of the Spanish, the Esselen have been a landless tribe. Today, the tribe is commemorating a return to their ancestry with the acquisition of the 1,199- acre Adler Ranch.
The ETMC tribal chairman, Tom Little Bear Nason, comes from a lineage of stewards of the lands of Big Sur and Carmel Valley. Protecting the land is deeply ingrained in him. His family has actively cared for and protected this land for over 150 years. Nason’s greatgrandfather Thomas Watson settled in Corral de Tierra and served as Monterey County’s sheriff. Some of the first judges in the community were
Nason and ETMC contributed to the removal of the San Clemente Dam and
are participating in the area’s restoration. A major goal is to replenish steelhead
trout, a threatened species, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
“My family has been ranching and living on the land. [We] have been wilderness
outfitters, nature guides, and have been guiding people into the Santa Lucia
Mountains and the Ventana Wilderness on horses and mules,” explains Nason.
“That’s how we started sharing our culture and heritage with people who come
to Big Sur and want a genuine experience.”
Over 30 years ago, Axel Adler of Adler Ranch invited the Esselen to his land.
“He wanted to donate the land to us, but we didn’t have the recognition or an
organization set up to receive the land,” he says. “As a result, it became Mill
Creek Reserve under the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District.”
In 2016, Western River Conservancy (WRC), an organization dedicated to
land acquisitions that promote critical habitat conservation while improving
public access, was trying to acquire Adler Ranch on behalf of the US Forest
Service. When that contract fell through, WRC’s program director, Peter Colby,
remembered meeting Nason in 2017.
“My job is to find those critical stretches of river and then work with our
partners to ensure they’re protected forever,” says Colby. He was alerted by a
land trust community member about the proposed sale of Adler Ranch, which
linked isolated forest service lands between coastal holdings and inland areas,
providing wildlife connectivity from the coast to the interior. “Our focus is on
rivers, and the Little Sur River is . . . one of the few remaining healthy steelhead
streams on this stretch of the coast,” he adds.
In 2018, ETMC formed a nonprofit organization to support cultural traditions
and preserve the tribe’s cultural heritage as well as sacred lands and cultural
sites. Also that year, Proposition 68 (Parks and Water Bond Act) provided
$40 million to the natural resources agency for primarily land acquisition,
specifically protection and preservation of cultural resources. The Adler Ranch
land acquisition fell within its parameters, and in July 2020, the acquisition was
completed, with ETMC as the beneficiary.
Colby describes this acquisition as essential to the preservation and protection
of the area. “Steelhead are the most important fish for the ecology of the area.
The river is pristine. The land provides habitat for condors, marbled murrelets,
rare endemic plants, and old growth redwoods—some of the southernmost in
the world,” he says.
Nason is equally passionate about the area’s diverse, fragile ecosystem. As such,
he and the ETMC tribal council consider themselves stewards of the land, not
owners. This perspective implies a sense of responsibility, accountability, and
duty to preserve and protect the land for all living beings.
The tribe will not develop the land for commercial enterprises but instead will
create a tribal village as a ceremonial site to revitalize their culture. They will
also repatriate ancestral remains as they work to mend the sacred hoop of life.
In keeping with the land grant, they will offer traditional cultural opportunities to
tribal members and other bands of tribes. Finally, they will complete a two-year
study, including an environmental study of ecological and cultural components,
and the WRC will continue to be a resource for them.
“We are a nonprofit, and this is sacred ground to us. This property will be used
for our traditions. Nature is our world. Rivers are where we drink and bathe,”
says Nason. “The forest allows us to collect ourselves. We visit the mountains to
seek our creator’s guidance and for rites of passage.”
Axler Adler’s wishes were granted, after all.
To learn more about the Esselen Tribe, visit esselentribe.org.