Best of 2001: Best Land Restoration

Campo Band of Mission Indians
36190 Church Road, Campo

So you thought that when Europeans came to San Diego, they found a pristine wilderness? Wrong. What they discovered, says the Kumeyaays' Mike Connolly, was a huge, loosely manipulated garden. "They didn't know the oak forests were orchards we had planted and cultivated for acorns over thousands of years," says Connolly, a one-time aerospace engineer. "They didn't realize we had encouraged the willows and cottonwoods near streams to hold the water in the earth. That we had regular controlled burns of sagebrush to allow the grasses and trees to come through." Two centuries of disastrous land degradation later, the Campo Kumeyaay have decided enough's enough. At great loss of revenue they have ousted the native grass-killing cattle from their reservation. They have created mishay sha-wing -- "sediment holders" -- dams across streams to slow water flow. They have planted willows and cottonwoods. And year-round babbling brooks have returned. With the water have come birds, ducks, frogs, turtles, rodents, owls, fish, jackrabbits, squirrels, mule deer, and behind them the coyote and bobcats. Someone even saw a mountain lion the other day. Plus, elements of their pre-European diet are returning: wild celery, watercress, stinging nettle (high in iron), and live oaks with their acorns, once the staple of the Kumeyaay diet. "I think we're showing," says Connolly, "that man can actually be beneficial to Nature."

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