Much of this account is summarized from the thesis of Sharon Johnson, (now Sharon Edell): The Land-use History of the Coast Range Preserve (PDF). Written during her tenure as a TNC Reserve Manager at Angelo, her work still remains the most scholarly and comprehensive land-use study of the region.
Human occupation within the region may date back more than 5000 years (Johnson 1979). Native Californians: Cahto, Pomo, Wailaki, Yuki, Weott, and Sinkyone, among other tribes, lived as hunter-gatherers for thousands of years in the Eel basin. The Cahto, who are the first known occupants in the upper South Fork Eel around the Angelo Reserve, were partially nomadic, trekking annually from their homelands in the upper South Fork Eel to the Mendocino coast to harvest seaweed and fish (www.cahto.org). Their projectile points and mortar and pestle food-preparation tools have been found in the reserve’s terrace meadows. The Cahtos likely burned river terraces and parts of the woodland slopes periodically to clear the undergrowth, to facilitate hunting and gathering, and encourage populations of useful plants and animals.
The first European settlers arrived in the area during the 1880’s, relatively late in California homesteading history. The homesteading era in the reserve began with the arrival of the Elders, who first settled on the west side of the South Fork Eel in 1885, then in 1892, moved to live along Elder Creek near its confluence with the Eel. From 1885-1928, the Elders and six other families established homesteads along or near the flat South Fork Eel and Elder Creek. They felled and split redwoods that lined the moist lowlands for boards, shakes and pickets. Tannoaks were stripped for their bark, used to tan leather until a synthetic tanning agent was developed during WWI. But steep hillslopes shaded gardens and cold air drainage shortened the growing season. Increasingly, homesteaders sought work elsewhere and by 1928, all of the original homesteading families had moved on (Johnson 1979). Their tenure on the land is still evident in their hand-built road (the single road through the reserve), scattered orchards and miles of picket fences and old telephone wire woven through steep forested slopes.
The Lovejoys homesteaded the area around the present Wilderness Lodge. After receiving title to their land in 1905, they began a “boarder visit” at the present Wilderness Lodge site, housing as many as 15-20 guests, often recreational fishermen from San Francisco (Johnson 1979). A fire destroyed most of the original lodge in 1937. However, another country inn from that era still stands near the end of Wilderness Road. It was first built about a mile north of Wilderness Lodge near Horseshoe Bend by George and Annie Lovejoy brother in the late 1895, first as a one-room cabin, and later, enlarged with an elegant two-story addition with architecture typical of mid 19th century New England, to become the White House, now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The White House during its service for the “boarder visit” business of the Lovejoys, accommodated up to 30 visitors at a time, often visiting fishermen from San Francisco.
A new generation of land stewardship began in 1931, when Heath and Marjorie Angelo moved to the old Elder homestead on Elder Creek near its confluence with the South Fork Eel. With income from his business in the Bay Area, Heath and Margorie could realize his long-held dream to live an independent, pioneering life in the wilderness, in the area where Heath had enjoyed many boyhood summers fishing. Heath and Margorie set about rebuilding the Elder homestead, adding outbuildings including a black smith forge, a workshop, caretakers houses, and a laundry room. They also became the first land stewards living in the region who effectively protected the future reserve from destructive logging.
Alarmed by the massive logging of the region’s forests that began with the arrival of tractors at the close of WWII, the Angelos purchased and protected surrounding parcels of land as neighbors left their homesteads. In those days, forest land was taxed for the value of its standing timber. By the mid-1950’s, the Angelos had amassed nearly 3,000 acres and a heavier tax burden than they could pay. With the hope of protecting the land in perpetuity, they transferred ownership of their land, with the exception of 20 acres around their homestead, to The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in 1959. Their gift established the Northern California Coast Range Preserve (NCCRP), the first TNC preserve west of the MIssissippi and for many years, the largest. The Angelos lived out their lives on the reserve, with Heath recording much of its cultural and natural history.
Adjacent to the reserve, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) designated 1,417 hectares (3,500 acres) as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). In 1984, the reserve, together with the ACEC, was designated as a Biosphere Reserve under the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere program. In 1989, the University of California signed a management and use agreement with TNC to include the reserve in the University of California Natural Reserve System. In 1994, the University accepted the site from TNC and dedicated it as the Heath and Marjorie Angelo Coast Range Reserve. Together, the reserve and the ACEC now protect 2,954 hectares (7,660 acres) of natural area, with the reserve administered through the UC Berkeley Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research.
Johnson 1979 raises two important questions for all researchers working at Angelo (or any other field site): “How Undisturbed Is the Preserve? Which Are Man-Caused Features and Which Are Natural Ones?”. The legacy of Native Californian (Cahto) burning, copied by settlers during the Homestead period, is still evident in Angelo’s open forests, although these have filled in with cohorts of Douglas firs, which are expanding into areas of former brush. Dead and skeletal manzanita, and increasingly of oaks, tannoaks and madrone, testify to the ascendancy of Douglas fir in the absence of regular fire, and provokes consideration of whether Angelo should be periodically thinned or burned to preserve the rich habitat mosaic of the past that was important to humans and wildlife alike. Citing Lewis 1973, Johnson comments that “Considering that much of the California landscape may have developed under an aboriginal burning regime, one might be tempted to consider such man-caused fires an integral part of rather than as “disturbances”. The Lodge Fire, which burned along and slightly into Angelo’s northern boundary in July 2014, was by and large “low and slow” (a “good”) fire. The patterns of vegetation that regrow in its wake may inform some of our choices about this important management policy.
Cook Margarite and Diane Hawk. 1999. A glance back. Northern Mendocino County History. Hawk Mountain Publishing, Piercy, CA.
Comer, Penny Branscomb, Elder Project Coordinator. Through the eyes of the Elders Volumes I, II, III and any more you can find!. A collection of stories and remembrances from the early days of Laytonville.
Jackson, W. Francis. 1991. Big River was dammed. FMMC Books, Mendocino, CA.
Johnson, Sharon. 1979. The land-use history of the Coast Range Preserve, Mendocino County, California. MS Thesis, Dept. of Geography, University of California, Berkeley.
The following three references describe the narrow escape in the 1960s of the Eel River from the construction of a high dam that would have flooded Round Valley, near Covelo, and diverted huge amounts of Eel flow to southern California. Read these to see how much difference a few determined individuals can eventually make for the future and fate of rivers.
Ted Simon. 2001. The River Stops Here: Saving Round Valley, A Pivotal Chapter in California’s Water Wars. UC Press, Berkeley CA.