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Chico State

Ancestral Land in Butte Creek Canyon Returned to the Mechoopda Tribe

Chico State Provost Debra Larson and Mechoopda Chairman Dennis Ramirez sign documents at a table at the Butte Creek Ecological Preserve
Jason Halley / University Photographer

From left: Chico State President Gayle Hutchinson looks on as Mechoopda Tribal Chairman Dennis Ramirez and Chico State Provost Debra Larson sign the celebratory agreement documents to recognize the completion of the land transfer, as Wildlife Conservation Board Assistant Executive Director Rebecca Fris watches nearby.

In the first agreement of its kind in the state, ownership and management of the 93-acre Butte Creek Ecological Preserve has been transferred from Chico State Enterprises to the Mechoopda Indian Tribe to manage, protect, restore, and steward the land as it recovers from the Camp Fire

Today, the Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria and Chico State Enterprises (CSE) completed a landmark agreement that returns the 93 acres of land known as the Butte Creek Ecological Preserve (BCEP) back to the Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria. Enabled by recently passed legislation (Assembly Bill 379) sponsored by James Gallagher (R-Yuba City), the agreement is the first of its kind in California.

Today, at the preserve, Chico State and Tribal leaders were joined by local conservation nonprofit leaders and representatives of Butte Creek canyon community groups to celebrate the historic transfer.

“Today, I’m honored the State of California returned a parcel of culturally and ecologically important land back to its rightful caretakers,” said Gallagher. “The Mechoopda Indian Tribe is the most qualified steward of the Butte Creek Ecological Preserves to manage the land and its wildlife and plants as it recovers from the 2018 Camp Fire.”

Under the terms of the zero-dollar, land-transfer agreement that was approved by the California Wildlife Conservation Board, no buildings or structures can be built on the property and it will continue to be utilized for conservation and educational purposes. Through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between CSE and the Mechoopda, Chico State faculty and staff will have the ability to access the property to conduct research and field trips for K-12 students throughout the North State will continue.

“Words cannot begin to describe the importance of Butte Creek and Butte Creek canyon to our people,” said Dennis Ramirez, chairman of the Mechoopda Tribe. “It is with great honor that we become stewards of these sacred Indigenous lands once again. We look forward to getting to work and accelerating the property’s recovery process so that it can once again host visitors and educational field trips.”

BCEP is a 93-acre site along the middle section of Butte Creek. The property contains more than a mile of creek frontage, as well as habitat for many species of special status, including the western pond turtle and yellow-legged frog. Butte Creek is critical salmon habitat and spawning grounds for the largest population of Central Valley spring run Chinook, a state and federal threatened evolutionarily significant unit.

“The University has owned the property since 1998 and for the last several decades has hosted thousands of K-12 students on educational field trips,” said Chico State President Gayle Hutchinson, who also serves as the presidential liaison for the California State University Native American Initiative. “It has served as a hands-on learning site for Chico State students in numerous disciplines and provided grounds for critical research on water quality, wildlife, fire prevention, and other areas of interest. We are pleased that these activities will continue as we proudly partner with the Mechoopda on this important land transfer agreement. The preserve has been closed since the Camp Fire and we look forward to it becoming accessible once again for students, faculty, and communities.”

During her tenure, Hutchinson has worked to grow Tribal relations as a key priority of Chico State. In addition to reaffirming a memorandum of understanding for guiding principles for Chico State’s consultation with the Tribe and a resolution for a territorial land acknowledgment, the University’s Office of Tribal Relations works with Tribes on a government-to-government basis and with other Tribal partners to provide access, social, emotional, and academic support for Native American students. 

The Mechoopda Indian Tribe’s respect and knowledge for the land are rooted in cultural and traditional practices that require sustainable, equitable development and proper management of natural and cultural resources. The tribe is currently developing an updated land management plan for BCEP consistent with the Wildlife Conservation Board grant agreement. It also plans to immediately begin addressing the dead trees and other fuels on the property to mitigate wildfire risk and promote ecosystem health.

“The Mechoopda, with centuries of expertise of our local ecosystems and watersheds, are uniquely qualified to improve and manage the Butte Creek Ecological Preserve,” said John Donnelly, executive director of the California Wildlife Conservation Board. “The Tribe’s sophisticated restorative land management practices will help create a healthy ecosystem that is resilient, fire-adaptive, and beneficial to the entire community.”

The Mechoopda Tribe’s Environmental and Cultural Resources Protection Department currently manages grants from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (Indian General Assistance Program, Clean Water Act 106 Program, and Clean Water Act 319 Program) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (Water Management Program).

It also has partnered with the US Army Corps of Engineers to restore 42 acres of riparian habitat and valley oak woodland habitat along Clear Creek in Butte County. The Tribe also led the reintroduction of native plants to help restore Verbena Fields in Butte County. In all, The Tribe manages 626 acres of land and 40 acres of agricultural land.

AB379 passed the Assembly in May 2021 and the Senate in September 2021, becoming law in January 2022. With bipartisan support, it expanded existing laws related to fish and wildlife habitats to authorize the Wildlife Conservation Board to enter into agreements with and make grants or loans to California Native American Tribes for purposes related to supporting habitat conservation.

The Mechoopda Tribe is planning an event later this fall to host the broader community at the property and to meet its neighbors throughout the watershed. Details will be forthcoming.