Image courtesy of Raymond C. Hitchcock.

“Growth,” a six-letter word to many a conservationist, isn’t the major goal you would expect from a nonprofit that stewards the land of North Central California.

But when Raymond Hitchcock was selected as the Amah Mutsun Land Trust’s (AMLT) new executive director last month, growing the organization was among the top priorities for both him and the rest of the organization.

Growth, to them, is a springboard from which the AMLT’s larger aims can be reached: to conserve the natural, native resources of California, reintroduce native flora and land management practices, and, ultimately, provide the Amah Mutsun people with access to their ancestral homelands.

Historically, Amah Mutsun territory spanned a large area of land bounded to the east and west by what is today Los Banos and Santa Cruz, and San Jose to Salinas to the north and south. Spanish colonization of Central California began in 1770. Learn more about the history of the Amah Mutsun here.

“The Land Trust has grown exponentially over the past few years, and the work [on the ground] is just tremendous,” Hitchcock said. “We’re in the infant stage right now, we’re not even in preschool yet, yet we’re doing college-grade education.”

Hitchcock brings years of experience as tribal chairman and CEO of the Wilton Rancheria, a northern California tribe settled in the southern Sacramento Valley. Under Hitchcock, the Rancheria expanded its land trust rights significantly, and saw the construction of a new casino and resort complex in Elk Grove.

His selection as executive director, which involved months of interviews, background checks, and site visits, comes as the AMLT has been making waves in the California stewardship and native plant restoration scene. Over the past six-and-a-half years, its flagship youth stewardship program has brought dozens of young volunteers to restore native plant species in natural locations throughout central California. 

In recent years, the AMLT has also conducted a series of cultural burnings of woodland fuel in San Vicente and Pinnacles National Park, which experts say could be employed on a large scale to help prevent wildfires. 

But what the AMLT is precisely — and where it fits in within the larger framework of California Native tribal organizations — can be somewhat confusing. Founded by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band in 2014, the AMLT is a distinct entity from the tribe and the over 600 members it represents. It boasts staff of a variety of tribal and non-tribal backgrounds. Hitchcock himself is not of Amah Mutsun heritage, hailing instead from the Miwok and Nisenan tribes of northern and central California.

Kent Lightfoot, chairman of the AMLT, explained that the land trust was created to circumvent the legal limitations that hinder the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band from gaining access to its ancestral territory. The Amah Mutsun, who are not a federally recognized tribe, lack the sovereign status that has long granted Native people in the U.S. the right to maintain territory independent from state governments. 

In their stead, the AMLT deals with the dozens of private and public entities that hold Amah Mutsun territory, like the Bureau of Land Management, the California State Parks Foundation, and Pinnacles National Park.

“Our executive director’s really a critical person in person in that,” Lightfoot said, “because they’re oftentimes the one who’s really involved in developing and nurturing those relationships.”

The AMLT also works with UC Santa Cruz, which currently allows native stewards to harvest a variety of culturally vital plant species from its land. Deer grass, for instance, is a fluffy green perennial that is used by the Amah Mutsun to weave baskets and grows in and around the UCSC Arboretum.

Rick Flores, the Arboretum’s director of horticulture, works closely with the youth stewards who come to harvest the campus’s natural resources. He said one of the primary objectives of the AMLT’s youth stewardship program is to educate new generations of Amah Mutsun youth in the traditional land management practices of their ancestors. 

This insight extends to philosophies of conservation in general, where the prevailing attitude of the last century has viewed the “natural world” as pristine and untouched by human beings.

“Historically, conservation efforts were kind of [putting] a fence around a piece of land and [calling] it conserved,” Flores said. “While you may be conserving the physical boundaries of that place, without forms of management and disturbance, traditional ecological knowledge, you’re not necessarily going to conserve the biodiversity found within that piece of property.”