In 1979 the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana became the first in the nation to set aside tribal land—92,000 acres of the Flathead Reservation's mountains and meadows—as wilderness. Since then, the Nez Perce have acquired 16,286 acres of ancestral lands in northeast Oregon that they will manage solely to benefit fish and wildlife. The Assiniboine and Sioux tribes in northeastern Montana are working to bring back bison on the Fort Peck Reservation. In Minnesota the Chippewa, or Ojibwa, have restored a ravaged walleye population at Red Lake. And on the Fort Apache Reservation in Arizona the threatened Apache trout is finding a new home, and the forest is now managed with ecology, not just lumber, in mind.
Santa Clara Pueblo's conservation program had an unlikely beginning. Late one evening in May 2000 a controlled burn to remove underbrush in nearby Bandelier National Monument went awry. The so-called Cerro Grande fire wound up devouring 235 buildings in the towns of Los Alamos and White Rock and eating more than 47,000 acres, including the upper part of Santa Clara Canyon. The fire even spread to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, though no radiation was reported to have been released from its nuclear facilities. When the smoke cleared, the Santa Clara Pueblo closed the canyon, long a tourist attraction, and announced that it would take over management of its land from the BIA.
Today the scent of pine and juniper floats in the morning air under a blue sky. The valley rolls out a green tongue of trees in the slot canyon, tracing a path toward the Valles Caldera. The tribe has removed the invasive, exotic tamarisk and Siberian elm and Russian olive from 650 acres along the Rio Grande and restored 75 acres of wetland. In the burn area above the canyon 1.7 million seedlings have been planted, including ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, blue spruce, Engelmann spruce, and white fir. Where Turkey Creek joins the main stream, the signs of elk are everywhere—gnawed bark on wind-felled aspen, droppings in the snow—and ancient beaver dams molder under recent growth. Fifteen years ago the last beaver left this canyon. Now the tribe hopes that with the restoration of streamside growth, the beaver will return and once again start the cycle of dams, ponds, and eventually, as silt fills the impoundments, meadows—a rhythm as old as the mountains.
The pueblo's recreation director, Stanley Tafoya, says simply, "What we are trying to do is restore our resources. The older people want their grandkids to enjoy the canyon we once knew."
That said, there is no Eden to restore. The North American landscape encountered by European invaders was hardly a pristine wilderness. Early human hunters may have helped wipe out mammoths and other megafauna at the end of the Ice Age. For thousands of years after that, Native Americans manipulated the land for their own needs with dams, canals, and fields. They regularly cut and burned the forests to clear land for farming and hunting.
In modern times, some tribal lands became littered with junk, and a few tribes opened solid-waste dumps to bolster their income. In Santa Clara Canyon the disappearance of the beaver was almost certainly hastened by tribal members. Even today, the land is grazed by the tribe's cattle. But in the hope of restoring the streamside vegetation and the beaver, the tribe has begun fencing livestock out of wetland areas and adopted a grazing management plan.