Fostering Stewardship the Land Recognizes

By stephanie beard, Communications Coordinator

Adapted from an Interview with Michael Gillogly (Preserve Manager) and Clint McKay (Indigenous Education Coordinator)

Michael Gillogly has dedicated his life to conservation, and nearly the last three decades with a careful focus exclusively on the lands of Pepperwood. He’s served as the preserve’s Manager since before it was stewarded by the Pepperwood Foundation, having started his role on behalf of the California Academy of Sciences. Michael believes that people play integral roles in the ecosystems upon which they rely. Pepperwood is more than just a place for Michael, it is his home.

Clint McKay’s connection to Pepperwood is generational. The Wappo people have lived and tended this land since time immemorial. Their stories of creation involve the mountain that we now call Mount Saint Helena. Clint does not need scientific proof of his connection to this land to know it is real and long held. This land is more than just a place for Clint, it is his homeland.

Clint and Michael’s perspectives arise from different traditions, but their love of Pepperwood’s inhabitants, from the smallest to largest, unites them in a shared sense of responsibility to steward and protect this special place. The Black Oak Project, launched by the Native Advisory Council at Pepperwood in 2018, provides a unique intersection where western and Indigenous science can meet. But the roots of this story reach farther back to a time long ago, when the Indigenous people of this place, Clint’s people, first developed a relationship with the black oak and solidified its role as a cultural keystone species. The relationship between human and tree, thousands of years in the making, resulted in a mosaic of ecosystems that defines our stewardship practices to this day.

The Wappo favor the black oak for its bounty of nutritious acorns, and for its provision of nourishment for numerous other species – deer, squirrels, mice, bear, woodpeckers, scrub jays, to name a few. Through the use of cultural fire and other traditional ecological practices, Clint’s ancestors created a sustainable relationship with their home landscape that lasted for millennia. This relationship was not static – it was flexible, adaptive, and resilient. Restoring this kind of relationship at Pepperwood is what Clint and Michael are working on together. After two hundred years of suppression of Indigenous tending practices that included the ignition of periodic low intensity cultural burns, what once was a carefully-tended garden became largely overgrown. Local Douglas-fir trees were able to encroach upon biodiverse oak woodland areas. With more trees, like straws in a bucket, there were also more demands on the water table.

During his tenure, Michael has steadily increased and refined the resources available for stewardship of Pepperwood’s life and landscapes. Michael evolved a program of forest thinning at the reserve, with the objective of increasing overall ecosystem health. He had to make a choice about which native forest he’d favor, Douglas-fir forests or oak woodlands. Michael chose to favor oak woodlands in part because historical ecology research at the preserve showed that the extent of oak woodlands was declining due to Douglas-fir encroachment. As part of his stewardship vision, Michael was also dedicated to reintroducing controlled burning.

The Black Oak Project initiated the revitalization of traditional ways to tend black oak woodlands so that they could again become healthful, productive and supportive. The first part of the project was identifying 60 “specimen” black oaks – oaks whose age and health designated them to be ideal “success stories”. The success of these oaks is attributed to the microenvironment that surrounds them. The idea then, was to mirror this microenvironment to other, unhealthy oaks and to steward them in ways that provide them with a better opportunity to grow and flourish.

Nowadays, Clint and Michael take a walk together about once every other week. They go out onto the land and discuss their philosophies of stewardship – taking the space to build understanding. Relationships are what’s important in this story. “Indigenous science has not always been acknowledged or respected,” says Clint, “but through interactions and relationships we expand our understanding of other people’s perspectives and methods around science.” The Black Oak Project embodies the intersection of Clint and Michael’s perspectives, Indigenous and western sciences. The former does not require data collection to understand a relationship that has existed for millennia. But using research to validate those relationships may be important to educate relatively recent arrivals. All the while, our research team studies the impacts of our stewardship over time so that we can collectively adapt our methods in the face of unprecedented climate change.

Together, Indigenous and western science inform our relationship to this place. For Michael, the lesson is about “slowing down – not just thinking about how many acres we’ve treated and how many more we can do, but also focusing on complex relationships.” By which he means relationships between the land, the inhabitants of the land, and each other. And for Clint, well-established relationships like these amount to mutual respect, the keystone of ecosystem resilience.

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