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Four years ago, unemployment in the Hung A Lel Ti Washoe community in Woodfords, California, hovered around 80%. Partnership with a regional nonprofit employing Native men and women to restore their ancestral lands helped slash that number in half.
Calaveras Healthy Impact Product Solutions or CHIPS was founded in 2004 to put people in the economically depressed communities of the Central Sierra back to work restoring the area’s forests, meadows, and watersheds. Centuries of fire suppression and poor timber practices across the West have led to overcrowded, fire-prone forests.
CHIPS works to return the landscapes to their natural state through forest thinning and prescribed fire to prevent catastrophic wildfires.
Until a few years ago, the organization’s footprint was much smaller, limited to two counties on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada range. All of that changed in 2015 when CHIPS founder, Steve Wilensky, met Irvin Jim, chairman of the Woodfords Washoe Community Council in Woodfords, California.
Jim approached Wilensky with the possibility of expanding the organization’s work to Alpine County where the Hung A Lel Ti Community of the Southern Band of the Washoe Tribe of California and Nevada is located.
“And out of that came work up at the Tahoe Basin and getting the tribe back into its sacred and ancestral lands — that really created a level of pride and a real mission for this group that had once ranged from Tahoe down to Yosemite and was now relegated to 80 acres of sagebrush on the Eastern Slope in extreme poverty and low employment,” said Wilensky.
For the Washoe tribe, the mission of CHIPS fits naturally with how they stewarded their ancestral lands for millennia. The tribe’s ancestral lands extend from Lassen County in the far North of California around to the foothills of the central Sierra toward Yosemite and over to the eastern Sierra in Nevada. Archeological records put the Washoe tribe and dialect as one of the oldest in California with a history dating back over 10,000 years.
However, in the mid 19th century, the California gold rush and Nevada silver rush brought miners and settlers to the Washoe territory. By the mid-20th century, amid forced assimilation, the tribe had lost the majority of its ancestral land and was relegated to several hundred acres of land on different “colonies” in California and Nevada. Today, approximately 1,500 tribal members live on four colonies in California and Nevada: Dresslerville, Woodfords, Carson, and Reno-Sparks.
The spiritual and geographic core of their territory, Lake Tahoe, derives its name from the Washoe word for the lake – Da Ow. “For us to go back in there and be the caretakers again – it falls back into what is right,” Jim said.
Although CHIPS now employs upwards of 30 members from the Hung A Lel Ti Community, they started out with only three men on the crew. Samuel Simmons has been working with CHIPS since the partnership began five years ago and has seen the organization grow from humble beginnings. “The first year was probably the hardest year,” Simmons said. “We were just learning.”
When he started working with CHIPS, Simmons was only making $10 an hour. Over the years, he has seen that base rate increase dramatically as the crew builds their reputation and receives more contracts at higher rates. “Every year it’s getting better and better.”
Simmons is now a foreman with CHIPS and leads the crew’s restoration efforts in the Lake Tahoe area. He credits much of their success to the camaraderie the crew has with each other and their loyalty to the organization.
Although Simmons has received job offers from the Forest Service in recent years, he is committed to working for CHIPS. “I wake up happy to go to work … because all my friends are here,” he said. “The CHIPS thing is like family.”
Prior to the partnership with CHIPS, work was hard to come by in the Woodfords Washoe community. Tribal members had to cross the border to Nevada to find jobs. Lack of transportation made this option a non-starter for many. CHIPS provides an alternative route to employment and supplies crew members with the necessary transportation and forestry training.
Irvin Jim and others are already seeing the cascading effects of the partnership across the community, from lowering drug and alcohol use to instilling hope in the next generation. “What’s exciting about it is that our younger generations who only witnessed the drugs, the alcohol are now seeing their moms and dads as part of the work force,” Jim said. “It’s just going to carry over.”
Jim worked with CHIPS to partner with the other neighboring Washoe communities in Nevada to expand the native workforce beyond the Hung A Lel Ti and build bridges between the communities. “In my position as a leader for the tribe, any tribal member that I can help I will give them a chance,” he said.
This build-out has not only fostered collaboration within the tribe, it has allowed them to return to more of their ancestral territory across the Sierra. In addition to expanded work in the Lake Tahoe basin, the crew is now leading restoration efforts in the Humboldt–Toiyabe National Forest to the East. “We’re going to cover almost all of our ancestral lands,” said Jim.
As other groups take notice of the work of the Washoe Tribe, the CHIPS model is starting to catch fire. CHIPS has been funded to continue to extend the model across the Sierra. “We kind of toiled in anonymity for a long time,” Wilensky said about CHIPS forest restoration efforts, “but people are beginning to say, ‘ we all talk about workforce development, we all talk about native engagement and here it is in one piece.’”
Thurman Roberts, a member of the Woodfords community, spent two years as a member of the CHIPS crew before becoming a fellow with the Sierra Nevada Alliance. He now works with CHIPS to expand their native workforce and forest restoration efforts across the Sierra. He said this growth and success is an important way to show the region that “native workforces are the proper people to work their lands.”
CHIPS has developed partnerships with the Miwuk and Paiute tribes to restore their ancestral lands in and around Yosemite National Park as well as with the Mono Tribe in Fresno County. This work is part of nearly $6 million in grants and contracts the organization has brought in so far this year. “It’s going to change the way that restoration happens with tribal communities,” Roberts said.
As the work of CHIPS continues to expand across the region and state, this is one fire that partners across California want to keep spreading. “I always tell the crew that this is going to get big,” Jim said. “It’s getting bigger and we are moving up along with it.”