Landscapes of Uncertainty in California

Post by Christine Eriksen and Michael Adams

Three weeks into our California fieldwork, the United States Senate failed to reform the country’s gun laws (270 Americans are shot every day) and two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon, tragically killing three people and injuring many others. For many people in the USA, uncertainty is part of the daily social fabric.

Camouflaged lizard, Joshua Tree NP (photo: C Eriksen)

We were in the USA with several aims: to negotiate new international student exchanges as part of a UOW International Links Grant co-funded by the Faculty of Science; to participate with a group of AUSCCER researchers at the Association of American Geographers conference; to explore contemporary conservation initiatives and challenges, including Indigenous involvement and NGO conservation initiatives; and to continue research on wildfire and hunting.

While pursuing all these interests, we were repeatedly struck by dimensions of uncertainty in American life, some of which might be particularly acute in California.

Tsunami warning sign, Venice Beach, LA (photo: C Eriksen)

Dust storm, Owens Valley, CA (photo: M Adams)

We drove 2,000 miles, sometimes funnelled along at 75mph on Los Angeles’ fearsome and crowded 12 lane freeways, and sometimes on remote backroads, across the San Andreas fault – one of the many fault lines that crisscross earthquake-prone California (see, Reisner 2004). Tsunami warning signs greeted us on Los Angeles’ Venice Beach. Many times along Highways 395 and 10 we encountered the thousands of miles of aqueducts (the largest user of power in California) that flow through dust-billowing deserts that were once the rich agricultural hubs of, for example, Owens Valley and Mono Lake (see, Reisner 1993). Wildfire scars were evident across thousands of hectares of forest. These were all constant reminders that these really are landscapes of uncertainty.

View of aqueduct from Tejon Ranch (photo: M Adams)

Michael spent a day on the Tejon Ranch, which at 250,000 acres is the largest contiguous landholding in California. After a century of ranching, mining and development operations, Tejon has established a complex new environmental dimension in the form of the Tejon Conservancy. The Conservancy was negotiated between Tejon’s owners and five major US and California environmental groups. In return for certainty for some development activities (particularly a billion dollar real estate project) the newly created Conservancy will manage conservation values across a landscape which links four major ecological regions. Funding for the Conservancy is linked to Tejon developments and is likely to reach $6m annually. The Conservancy reflects the global growth of private conservation activities – aspects of which are being studied in Australia by AUSCCER PhD student Heather Moorcroft. The agreement commits to the continuation of some ranch-wide activities, including hunting through which Tejon earns up to two million dollars annually.

Christine guest lectured at California State University, Chico in one of the few pyro-geography courses taught at university undergraduate level worldwide. Like many parts of Australia, wildfire is an annual occurrence in California. In both countries the ability of people to coexist with fire at the wildland-urban interface causes much debate and consternation. Christine presented on the challenges of preparing, responding and recovering from wildfire amongst contemporary landholders in California and New South Wales – a key theme in her forthcoming book.

In California (as in Australia) water and fire are closely interlinked ecological and social systems. When one is out of balance, the other often is too. On April 20th the front and back pages of the Los Angeles Times reported on the “girding of fire fighters for battle” as Southern California heads for its fourth-driest year since 1877. The contradictions within California’s water politics feature starkly in the article through two opposing views. On the one hand the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California expresses a lack of concern for water supply due to stored water from stronger rain years. On the other hand, a quote by worried farmers from the increasingly parched regions that supply most of the water to the Los Angeles metropolis display tough everyday realities: “When you’re a farmer in Central California, you absolutely watch the water as much as you watch your kids”.

Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve (photo: C Eriksen)

While water is often taken for granted, fire is a constant filled with uncertainties. These themes form a key part of both Don Hankins’ pyro-geography course at CSU, Chico and the associated environmental management efforts at the CSU, Chico Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve and Butte Creek Ecological Preserve with whom we met to discuss student exchange and service learning opportunities.

Reservation map, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians

Driving from meetings at UC San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park, we discovered a fascinating case study about Native Americans, land and water in the California deserts. Entering Palm Springs from the surrounding desert is a surreal experience – bright green irrigated lawns, expensive cars, up-market resort and spa accommodation, and thousands of palm trees in a flat landscape surrounded by arid mountains. This is the traditional country of the Cahuilla Indians. Like Native American tribes across the USA, the Agua Caliente Band of the Cahuilla Indians has faced wide-ranging environmental, social and economic uncertainty. When the US government pushed settlement and development into the country of the Cahuilla Indians in the 1870s, they surveyed and subdivided the region (of current-day Palm Springs) into a grid of square mile plots. The odd-numbered lots were given to the railway company as a development incentive, and the Agua Caliente Band was allocated the even-numbered lots as an Indian Reservation. This halving and chequerboard exercise was one of many tactics to dispossess and disempower California Indians, whose manifest destiny was to be swept away by the wave of new settlement.

View of downtown Palm Springs from Tahquitz Canyon (photo: C Eriksen)

At Palm Springs, however, a long history of resistance and skilled negotiation by Cahuilla leaders meant that most of the chequerboard of Native American-allocated lands was retained. As Palm Springs eventually developed into an expensive resort destination, the Agua Caliente Band became the single largest landholder with billion-dollar real estate enterprises based on leasing what became downtown lots. The Cahuilla name for Palm Springs is Sec-he (boiling water) after the natural hot springs. The name “Palm Springs” refers to both the native Washingtonia filifera palm tree and the Agua Caliente Hot Spring that underpins the basis for the success of the resort still owned by the Cahuilla community. Other water sources for the town are similarly based on California Indian lands.

Washingtonia filifera palm tree, Indian Canyons (photo: C Eriksen)

Like most places in California, Native American presence in Palm Springs is largely invisible, unless you go to the surrounding dry country, where Tribal Rangers manage cultural and environmental values in the undeveloped Indian Canyons, Tahquitz Canyon and adjacent mountain lands. These lands and their function are similar to Australia’s Indigenous Protected Areas, but are funded mostly from California Indian generated income sources. They form part of the multi-tenure Santa Rosa and San Jocinto Mountains National Monument, with California Indian landowners supporting public access to parts of their lands.

Opportunities abound from our month in California. There are many exciting ways to develop new and existing teaching and research links to landscapes of uncertainties. We look forward to sharing eventual outcomes with you in future blog posts.

One thought on “Landscapes of Uncertainty in California

  1. Pingback: Reflections from the fire front and research in its ashen wake | Conversations with AUSCCER

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