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Silva writes: "If Ken Holbrook has his way, the Humbug Valley, a sprawling tract of alpine meadow high in the northern Sierra, will become California’s first American Indian tribal cultural park. That distinction doesn't yet exist, but it would apply to tribal land open for public recreation."

Ken Holbrook of the Maidu Summit Consortium visits Yellow Creek in the Humbug Valley in Plumas County. (photo: Michael Macor/SF Chronicle)
Ken Holbrook of the Maidu Summit Consortium visits Yellow Creek in the Humbug Valley in Plumas County. (photo: Michael Macor/SF Chronicle)

PG&E Owns Land Across California. What Will Happen to It?

By Spencer Silva, The San Francisco Chronicle

24 June 19


f Ken Holbrook has his way, the Humbug Valley, a sprawling tract of alpine meadow high in the northern Sierra, will become California’s first American Indian tribal cultural park. That distinction doesn’t yet exist, but it would apply to tribal land open for public recreation.

Holbrook is the executive director of the Maidu Summit Consortium, a tribal organization devoted to land stewardship and education, and he’s one of a few thousand Mountain Maidu who still live near an area of Plumas County historically occupied by the tribe’s ancestors. He envisions guides leading hikers around Tásmam Kojóm, the Humbug Valley’s Maidu name, as well as public campgrounds and classes on basket-weaving and the nearly lost Maidu language.

Ownership of the land, Holbrook said, is “the only viable way of us maintaining ourselves as a people.”

Before that vision can be realized, though, the Maidu need to procure title of their ancestral land from an unlikely owner: Pacific Gas and Electric Co. As one of the largest private landowners in California, the utility has control of an area that, if connected in a contiguous chunk, would cover more than four times the size of San Francisco.

In the aftermath of PG&E’s 2001 bankruptcy, the company agreed, in exchange for financial relief, to protect or donate more than 140,000 acres of its land holdings, many of which encompass California’s key forests and watersheds. While the company would retain about two-thirds of the land, the rest was to be donated to public agencies and tribes. In 2013, after an arduous application process, the company agreed in principle to grant the Maidu more than 3½ square miles of the tribe’s historical lands in and around Humbug Valley. Six years later, the tribe is still waiting for the official transfer to come through.

The Maidu aren’t the only prospective landowners waiting on PG&E. As part of its 2003 bankruptcy settlement, the utility has been working to fulfill similar agreements with tribes and land trusts, as well as public entities such as the U.S. Forest Service, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and the UC Center for Forestry — groups that want to preserve, improve and study the land.

As of June, PG&E has completed less than half of the 98 land transactions agreed upon in 2003. That interim planning period has involved a careful selection process to find stewards for each of the 1,000 or so parcels undergoing transfer and lots of rubber-stamping from various government entities.

But PG&E’s second bankruptcy, which it entered into this year, casts a pall of uncertainty over what’s already been a difficult waiting game for prospective land stewards.

“My only worry is that PG&E would stop working on these projects,” said Shelton Douthit, executive director of the Feather River Land Trust, a conservation group that acquires land and easements in the Feather River region north of Sacramento. His group and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife would jointly hold a conservation easement at Humbug Valley, a title that makes them legal partners in any Maidu restoration effort. “It would be a complete waste and a tragedy.”


PG&E owns hundreds of miles of tunnels and canals, a patchwork of parcels surrounding its ubiquitous transmission lines, and more than 200 square miles of watershed lands in 16 river basins — plus several thousand acres of land outside the watersheds, including field offices, substations, training facilities and its huge headquarters in downtown San Francisco, which may be worth close to $1 billion.

Its real estate portfolio contains swaths of open space, meadowland and other natural areas that, before the 2001 bankruptcy, conservationists had been eyeing for years. There are sensitive ecological areas such as McArthur Swamp, an important stopover for migratory birds between Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen; historic tribal cultural sites such as Humbug Valley and Hat Creek in Lassen National Forest; blue-ribbon fishing streams in the Sierra; and land encompassing short sections of the Pacific Crest Trail.

“The most sensitive lands across California are our rivers and creeks, wetlands, wet meadows, lakes, and those are the very lands that PG&E had assembled across the Sierra and Northern California for over a century,” said Dave Sutton, California land conservation director for the Trust for Public Land, a group that buys and preserves land for public benefit projects.

In the years leading up to its 2001 bankruptcy, PG&E started an initiative to sell off some of its undeveloped parcels in the Sierra that weren’t needed for utility operations. “We were trying to divest ourselves of unnecessary assets,” PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno wrote in an email.

The year before PG&E filed for bankruptcy, the company announced it would auction off some of its hydroelectric plants and the lands associated with them, sparking a panic among public agencies and conservationists who worried about timber and mining companies buying up the land for resource extraction. The company ultimately held onto its hydroelectric assets, but shortly after the bankruptcy filing, a coalition of conservation groups pounced on the opportunity to permanently protect them. The group established itself as one of PG&E’s many creditors, which meant it could object to any proposed settlements and add land protection to the bankruptcy court’s agenda.

In 2003, PG&E, the coalition, and the California Public Utilities Commission brokered a legal settlement: In exchange for permission to raise rates on consumers to pay off debt, PG&E would earmark $70 million that would go toward the effort to protect or give away 142,000 acres of land. The next year, a nonprofit advisory council, the Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council, was formed to advise, plan and recommend actions to PG&E for each of the 1,000 or so individual parcels.

The settlement was praised as one of the most important efforts to conserve state land in a century. “It was a ‘green lining,’ if you will, to the last bankruptcy,” Sutton said.

John McCaull, who was the California legislative director for the National Audubon Society, told The Chronicle at the time: “You’d have to look at the creation of the national parks here to find anything comparable.”


The effort to preserve PG&E’s lands has taken longer than conservationists imagined. But if all goes as planned, it promises the permanent protection of thousands of acres of prime fishing and recreation areas as well as wildlife habitat.

For instance, forest that was once coveted by the state’s largest private landowner, Sierra Pacific Industries, a timber company that owns and manages nearly 2 million acres of forest in California and Washington, would instead be transferred to Cal Fire or the University of California Center for Forestry. In 2016, the university acquired more than 1,500 acres of forest near Lake Spaulding in Nevada County from PG&E, and it expects to acquire twice that from the company in the next year. The new forest area would help expand the university’s research into the effects of climate change on trees and wildlife. Cal Fire would receive 15,600 acres of forest to maintain and study wildfire.

Through a grant from the Stewardship Council, the conservation group California Trout and the Pit River Tribe have helped renew Shasta County’s Hat Creek as a top destination for anglers. Along with restoring 1.5 miles of native trout habitat, the $1.4 million grant has funded the replanting of thousands of native plants and trees, new trails and the restoration of a rustic pedestrian bridge for visitors.

On March 12, the bankruptcy court recognized a motion that allows PG&E to continue fulfilling its land conservation commitment — news that came as a relief to stakeholders in the process. “That made a really big difference for our program, ensuring that things will continue business as usual on PG&E’s front,” said Heidi Krolick, executive director of the Stewardship Council. “We’re on a very rigorous timeline to get this completed.”

Krolick noted that the council has received all of the $70 million associated with the settlement. But with so many transactions incomplete, some were cautious about how the new bankruptcy could threaten some of the council’s unfinished business.

“The question was, would the new bankruptcy affect the completion of the land conservation commitment?” asked Richard Roos-Collins, an attorney at the Water and Power Law Group who represented conservation groups during the 2001 bankruptcy proceedings.

PG&E spokesman Moreno conveyed optimism in an email that the company’s current bankruptcy won’t threaten the completion of the outstanding transactions. “The process has been complex, but we do not see any insurmountable barriers to completing the necessary transactions,” he wrote.

“We are still monitoring the case, to ensure there aren’t any pleadings filed that might be contrary to us finishing,” Krolick said. To avoid unforeseen complications, the nonprofit has hired an attorney to monitor PG&E’s bankruptcy proceedings. “I don’t know if something like that would happen. It’s probably a slim chance, but it’s something we’re actively monitoring.”

Meanwhile, the easement holders and donees, including the Maidu, are anxious to see the job done. To Holbrook, transforming the valley is personal. By the first time he made his way to Humbug Valley in the 1980s, it had been trampled by a century’s worth of cattle hooves and besieged by invasive plants. Yellow Creek, a river bisecting the property that was once one of the best trout fisheries in the state, has been infected by a pathogen that causes whirling disease, which is deadly to native trout.

The longer the process of getting the land stalls, the longer Holbrook and the Maidu have to wait before stepping in to restore the land.

“It’s been sort of a reawakening, a community-wide recalling of some of these old land uses,” Holbrook said. “A lot of the community has gone out there and really began to see Tásmam Kojóm as this really important place that symbolizes what’s left to be had.”

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