Back to the Land

Tom Little Bear Nason, left, and John Polomo Brennan of Siskyou County Land Trust, at Adler Ranch.

At first, the area was known as Sargenta-Ruc, a Native American village with a view of Pixchi, or Pico Blanco Mountain, the center of creation in Esselen culture.

Then the Spanish colonized California, and the Mexicans came along, and the area got the name Rancho Aguila, or Eagle Ranch. In 1950, a Swede called Axel Adler bought the land – 1,199 acres – and it became known as the Adler Ranch.

Now, this pristine tract along the Little Sur River, containing stands of old-growth redwood trees, grasslands, oak woodlands and chaparral and madrone forest, is returning to its indigenous inhabitants, thanks to a $4.52 million grant from California Natural Resources Agency.

A tribe whose very existence was once called into question, the Esselen of Big Sur are landless no more.

“This is one of the first times a tribe has gotten its land back,” says Tom Little Bear Nason, who heads the Esselen Tribe of Monterey, a nonprofit set up in June to accept ownership of the ranch. “We consider the place sacred and we intend to protect it. We will use it to preserve our traditions.”

Nason said the tribe will conduct rites of passage and birthing ceremonies on the ranch. The tribe will also be able to bury its dead there, and repatriate the remains of tribal ancestors. The only public access to the property will be through docent-led tours on a handful of occasions each year. “We are not commercializing this property,” Nason adds. “There will be no tourism.”

According to a proposal Nason helped compile, the upland reaches of the Santa Lucia Mountains “served as a refuge for native Esselen and Rumsen tribal members who escaped the confinement of the Mission systems. This historical sacred land can once again be a refuge for the native peoples, free from entrapment as it has been for nearly two centuries.”

The Esselen are not recognized by the federal government but the acquisition could change that, according to Philip Laverty, whose 2010 doctoral dissertation is titled, “Recognizing Indians: Place, Identity, History and the Federal Acknowledgment of the Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation.”

“The possession of land has played a role in how other tribes have gained acknowledgement,” he says. “It could bolster [the Esselen tribe’s] claims of political and social continuity.”

The ranch is a 10-mile hike from Highway 1 but it can also be approached from Palo Colorado Road. It is located at the northwestern edge of the Ventana Wilderness adjacent to the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District’s Mill Creek Redwood Preserve.

The acquisition deal was brokered with the help of the Western Rivers Conservancy, a nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon, which considers the Little Sur River a key spawning stream for threatened steelhead. The ranch also represents an important habitat for California spotted owls, California condors, California red-legged frogs, marbled murrelets, and bald and golden eagles.

Peter Colby, the California program director for WRC, says the Adler descendants (who live in Sweden) wanted to sell the property but to a buyer that would ensure its conservation.

When the Adlers first listed the property on the market in 2010, the asking price was $15 million, according to a contemporaneous story in the Carmel Pine Cone. But they were ultimately willing to accept a much lower offer. The sale amount became public – and the deal was considered final – on Oct. 2 when California Natural Resources Agency announced awards from a grant program funded by Proposition 68, a bond measure approved by voters in 2018.

Out of the $37 million, the Esselen Tribal Lands Conservation Project received $4.52 million, the second-highest amount.

“These awards are a unique opportunity to help protect and celebrate important cultural resources while also building climate resiliency and expanding access to recreation,” California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said in a press release. “We’re excited to support projects that enable communities to showcase traditional practices and promote sustainability.”

Update: Peter Colby of the Western Rivers Conservancy provided comment after the story went to print cautioning that the deal has not been finalized. "The grant was a major hurdle but it's still a work in progress," he says. 

Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers the environment, agriculture and K-12 education, as well as Seaside, Marina, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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