Wildfire Brings Farm into Deeper Relationship with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band

As a land-based organization interested in social change, a deeper relationship with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band has shown Pie Ranch new pathways for wildfire resilience. 

Jered Lawson takes my call from their goat barn at Pie Ranch, an educational farm on a pie-slice-shaped piece of land near Pescadero California. Throughout our interview, baby goats nibble at the hems of his jeans and attempt to traverse his body. Despite the distraction, he takes a deep, intentional breath before we begin our interview- the impact of a wildfire from the CZU Lightning Complex in 2020 that burned much of their infrastructure is just one component of their story. 

He begins, surprisingly, not with the trauma of the fire, but with the history of the land where they farm, the ancestral home of the Quiroste Tribe. As there are currently no human descendants of the Quiroste, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and Land Trust (AMTB/AMLT) are bringing back traditional stewardship practices to these lands and invite other Indigenous peoples and allies to join them. The fire certainly deepened Pie Ranch’s relationship with the AMTB/AMLT , who are helping them explore rebuilding in a way that honors culture and ecology.

“They’re (the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band) relearning their work with fire, and we’re learning with them, in relationship with this land. Our efforts are focused on using earlier practices of working with fire as a means to manage fuel loads and enhance the landscape in a way that generates a healthy native ecosystem. That includes our interests in food, agriculture, and food systems,” shares Lawson, “fire is a really important tool and cultural practice that we’re learning more about as a result of the 2020 fire, and [as we rebuild], support the reestablishment of those indigenous foodways and plant/animal communities.”

This reframe reflects both ancestral and new perspectives of wildfire in places like California that have ecologically adapted to burning. Colonial forces and fire suppression policies changed that, but more and more, it’s become evident that society needs new ways of relating to wildfire. Even Governor Newsom has started to take notice, with the passage of two bills “that recognize cultural fire practitioners and cultural burning as being separate from prescribed burning and remove liability risks for tribes.” 

Below is an excerpt from Farmer Campus’s interview with Lawson. For the Pie Ranch’s full fire story, check out part 1 of this story. 

Farmer Campus: Can you tell us more about your history connecting with local tribes?

Jered Lawson: Prior to our own limited time on this particular stretch of coast and this smaller slice of it, there were coastal Indigenous communities that were working and living with fire for thousands of years.

As a white male growing up in California, I have unfairly benefited from unearned privileges. My responsibility going forward with this privilege is to actively work toward a multiracial vision of land stewardship that is rooted in equity and justice. Partnering with the Tribe and Land Trust around this vision is an honor and I am grateful for all the ways we can continue to work together, weaving together Indigenous land stewardship with regenerative practices that center culturally relevant foods and sovereignty for the diverse communities of the Bay Area.   Our relationship with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band began when I was invited to be part of a visioning session with the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District in 2013 and 2014 that led to a ballot initiative to raise $300 million to support that vision. 

That was where I first met Chairman Valentin Lopez of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band.  I learned more about his community’s efforts through the non-profit arm of the tribe, the Amah Mutsun Land Trust, to partner with other organizations like the UCSC Arboretum and Pinnacles National Park to gain access to land for relearning and healing from historical trauma suffered since colonization. Honoring their culture, knowledge, and leadership efforts to regain access to their ancestral territories was really inspiring to us. Through many conversations with Chairman Lopez, we agreed that we all wanted to deepen that kind of work and that a partnership between AMTB/AMLT and Pie Ranch would be mutually beneficial.

What does that look like at Pie Ranch?

Since signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the AMTB/AMLT at a Sunrise Ceremony in 2014, we’ve co-developed a Native Garden that is stewarded in partnership and is an important starting point for all educational programs at Pie Ranch. We are also hosting a Native seed increase program, working together on a vision of revegetating the burn scar with Native plants, hosting tribal gatherings and workshops, planting Native hedgerows alongside production fields, and exploring how our relationships, when based on reciprocity and trust, can continue for generations into the future.

After the fire, what did your relationship with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band teach you?

The fires ended up highlighting some key ecological, traditional practices such as the use of beneficial fire. It also made us look at what we can we remove (in terms of flora)  that might be contributing to negative outcomes of fire, like the eucalyptus groves.

Which led us also to ask, instead of replanting the vegetation we lost, what could we be planting that has cultural value and relevance, or other ecosystem benefits? So now we’re thinking about Native plants throughout the landscape, not just in the Native garden. 

Could you give examples?

One of the tribes partnered with UC Berkeley’s Archaeology Program, and they’d identified the plants Red Maids (Calandrinia ciliata, Mutsun name is saapah) , as significant to the tribe. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a noticeable population; they were struggling to even find examples of it in this area [likely due to the absence of cultural burning and natural wildfires]. But after the fires, we noticed in the area along the riparian corridor near our home that there was actually a new flash of Red Maids! We realized we could be gathering and distributing seeds from here to increase the plant population, which could eventually lead to it being reintroduced as part of the foodways of the tribe if that becomes of interest for them. I think this is just the beginning. 

We’ve all lost a lot of our culture and heritage of foods through assimilation to the Western diet and way of life. There’s an opportunity for us going forward to look at how to not just honor the tribes’ foodways and support their redevelopment of those foods but also look at ways that their traditional ecological knowledge, including the use of beneficial fire, could enhance our own traditional foodways as well- weaving together. 

For example, on organic farms, we use a legume, a mix of legumes, and other deeper-rooting annual plants like oats for our cover crops. But there are a number of native local seeds that also fix nitrogen that we could be increasing for use in our cover crop system. And it’s that kind of weaving together their traditional ecological knowledge with our interest in soil building for some food crops we’ll grow and share with our Bay Area community. I think this will also be part of the outcome of a deepening relationship as a result of the fires.

It seems like wildfire gave you a profound opportunity to demonstrate the power of partnerships. 

Yes – Climate change will make it hard for any of us to exist on this planet if we don’t figure out the right relationships with people, land, and fire. So I’m hopeful because of all the ways this wildfire has kindled our partnership with the tribe and others in the area that is interested in different ways of relating to ourselves, each other, and the Earth.

Through these types of relationships, we hope such efforts will help us develop fire resiliency while caring for the land and each other, enabling future generations to have access to healthy waters, soils, and the foods that come from them.

*Header photo is the slice of land that is Pie Ranch, from Pie Ranch’s website. Red Maids photo from Amah Mutsun website.