AFTER eight years of effort and three generations of lost dreams, people indigenous to a once lush Northern California coastal rain forest are finally going back home.
In a momentous decision, the state of California recently returned 3,900 acres of its last redwood rain forest to the region's natives for creation of the nation's first InterTribal Wilderness Park.
The InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council (ITSWC), in Ukiah, Calif., hopes to restore the ancestral homeland area to its original condition -- a diverse habitat for rare wildlife species such as the bald eagle and Pacific salmon.
''We will protect the Sinkyone, provide access to all people, and provide a living intertribal park,'' Priscilla Hunter, chairwoman of ITSWC, told the California Coastal Conservancy board, an arbitration committee that answers to the state of California.
The ITSWC is a consortium of 10 federally recognized California Indian tribes that has been working since 1985 to acquire its ancestral homelands.
Loggers vs. Indians
The debate that led up to the state's decision focused around three arguments made by the logging industry, native Americans, and environmentalists.
* Timber officials adamantly objected to the park proposal, calling it a $1.4 million ''giveaway'' at taxpayers' expense. Timber families in the area will suffer, union members say.
* Hawk Rosales, coordinator of the ITSWC, says that giving the Sinkyone over to native Americans will bring a new dimension to land-management practices.
''When we bring that spiritual sensitivity ... into the realm of restoring and managing degraded forest lands, then we are bringing into our work a perspective largely missing from the land-management efforts,'' he says.
Present practice is to create monocultural tree farms suitable for timber harvest. Natives, Mr. Rosales says, want a more balanced and diverse ecosystem.
* Many environmental organizations are looking to the InterTribal park as a potential example of how a long-term, sustainable human economy can work, says Cecelia Lanman, spokeswoman for the Garberville, Calif.-based Environmental Information Protection Center. ''The basis of human economy needs to be very similar to what native Americans practiced for a long time,'' she says.
About 200 miles north of San Francisco, the scenic coastal region known as the Sinkyone rain forest had once been home to one of the densest populations of native Americans on the continent. With rich harvests of fish, seaweed, herbs, and other resources, Indians came from all over the West to trade in the area.
The region is known as California's ''Lost Coast'' now because the Pacific Coast Highway veers inland here to avoid the rugged, unstable 1,600-foot mountains rising steeply from the ocean. The high mountains catch incoming Pacific moisture, creating some of the nation's highest precipitation and largest redwood trees.
As prime timber forest, the area was once heavily logged. But the Sinkyone forest still has some of the state's only remaining old-growth redwood groves. The trees reach heights of 200 to 300 feet and are up to 1,500 years old.
As a result of the court decision, the InterTribal Council has an exclusive, renewable three-year option to purchase its land now. During that time the forest remains under the management of its present owners, the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Lands.
Over the next three years, the InterTribal Council must raise money to purchase the park. The Council now has about $100,000 of the $1.4 million it needs.
In the meantime, plans are being made for development of the park, which include a restoration project for lands severely damaged by timber harvest.
The council hopes to construct four village sites on the land using only traditional materials, with the guidance of tribal elders, native spiritual leaders, and members of the community. There will be no permanent structures in the area. The village sites will be for retreats, cultural gatherings, and other celebrations.
Because many Indian people have alcohol or drug problems, the council also sees the wilderness park as a place where people can come to regain a sense of peace. ''Through this effort, I have witnessed a spiritual healing for our people,'' Ms. Hunter says. ''The land is essential to the native people. ''