By Christina Jewett
The Sacramento Bee
January 1, 2007

SONOMA COUNTY - In a remote clearing in a ridgetop forest, Reno Franklin kneeled to the ground and flicked scraps of bark with a trowel.

He was looking for ancient evidence of his people, the Kashaya band of the Pomo Indians. A fine mist fell. Fir trees, huckleberry bushes and chanterelle mushrooms surrounded Franklin.

"You could hang out here and sharpen your tools," he said, as if viewing the land through the eyes of his ancestors. "This is a nice spot."

The recent hunt was part of an exploration of lands where private owners plan to cut trees, with Franklin accompanied by a state archaeologist whose job is to fulfill an obscure mission of state law: safeguarding archaeological and historical artifacts deep in the woods.

But controversy surrounds the 25-year-old program, with some scholars and American Indians saying it is so understaffed that irreplacable, ancient treasures are being destroyed.

"It's just impossible for those people to cover a state this big," Franklin said of the half-dozen archaeologists who oversee state and some private lands. "It's a joke."

The six archaeologists employed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection monitor nearly 180,000 acres where landowners harvest trees each year, documenting archaeological discoveries and working with landowners to be sure the sites remain unharmed.

In contrast, 75 state archaeologists monitor new road projects for Caltrans and 26 monitor digging in state parks.

Bill Snyder, deputy director of resource management at CDF, said the program seems to be working well, particularly in contrast with a complete absence of archaeological oversight in the early 1980s.

"I think in general it's worked pretty well," he said. "Nothing is perfect."

But some scholars say there are too few people protecting such sites. Greg White, director of the Archaeological Research Program at California State University, Chico, is critical of staffing levels in CDF's program. He also questions the department's reliance on foresters, who receive five days of archaeological training and complete the initial -- and in some cases only -- survey of land set aside for tree cutting.

Franklin became active in the quest to preserve his tribe's heritage after the site of an ancient village and roundhouse -- a religious meeting place -- were bulldozed to make way for a vineyard near Cazadero in October 2004.

He said elders in his tribe wept when they learned the site was destroyed.

"Indian people, we're very tied to our land," said Franklin, who is his tribe's historic preservation officer. "Every time those sites get damaged, it reflects negatively on us as a tribe. It hurts us."

On the recent afternoon Franklin searched the Sonoma woods near Annapolis Ridge, CDF archaeologist Chuck Whatford joined him.

Whatford, a CDF archaeologist for more than a decade, estimates that he spends half to three-fourths of his time each year checking about 200 timber harvest plans -- scanning land slated for tree-cutting for archaeological sites.

He also parachutes in to wildfires and helps crews divert the blaze from historical sites and scopes land proposed for CDF buildings.

For timber harvest plans, registered foresters do the first survey of land slated for cutting, checking for known archaeological sites and scanning the forest floor for new ones.

Whatford reviews their work, searching for Indian villages, worship sites or campgrounds marked by artifacts or silky black soil that forms beneath land used for hundreds of years for cooking and working.

"Could I use more help?" he mused, driving through twisting roads to the Sonoma County inspection site Dec. 12. "Sure."

If Whatford finds an archaeologically significant site, he documents it and seeks compromise between the landowner and local tribe -- often allowing tree harvesting yet causing no damage to the site.

Michael Jani, vice president of Mendocino Redwood Co., which owns the 555-acre Sonoma County site, went along with Whatford and Franklin on the recent survey.

Jani said the company realizes the archaeological sites have sacred value and that "there are any variety of solutions" to harvesting timber while preserving the sites.

The data archaeologists record from the sites can be analyzed by anthropologists who piece together California's history.

Franklin visited one Kashaya site about a mile from the tribe's reservation the day he joined Whatford for the land survey.

In the forest about 100 yards from a rural road, Franklin noted the round footprint of a tribal shelter and raven soil enriched by generations of inhabitation.

"You can feel the silkiness," Franklin said, rubbing his fingers against the soil called "midden" by archaeologists. Franklin said a forester noted the site several years ago when logging was proposed there, and the company steered clear of the area.

Walter Antone, a Kashaya elder, said Indians visit the site periodically, but leave it untouched.

"It's sort of taboo to take anything away," he said. "We might find an arrow point, but something tells us 'no, put it back.' We leave it."

Conflict arises when foresters and archaeologists miss sites altogether.

Shelly Davis-King, the past president of the Society for California Archaeology, wrote a letter to CDF, blasting its archaeology program for standing by while historical sites were logged.

She said she checked a site in Tuolumne County where a forester overlooked a historic logging railroad grade that was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and conversion to a recreational trail.

She called the program "broken," saying archaeologists are so understaffed they can not fulfill their mission.

"All (historical) resources are nonrenewable," she said. "Once gone, they're gone and we can't get them back."

Snyder, of CDF, said he plans to familiarize himself with Davis-King's concerns.

He said CDF is interested in seeing that historic sites are protected, and tries to fulfill the task with foresters doing the first line of work and archaeologists providing oversight.

"We look at breaking the workload up the best we can," he said. "In general, (foresters) do a reasonable job of spotting what's out there."

Adrian Miller, California Licensed Foresters Association president, said the foresters save land owners money by doing the initial archaeological check. CDF archaeologists perform a needed second check, he said.

Eric Huff, who oversees licensing of foresters for CDF, said the state's roughly 550 foresters are carefully monitored. Several have been suspended from practicing forestry and sent back to training after failing to note archaeological sites.

The safeguards still fall short of what Franklin would like to see. So he plans to shadow archaeologists scoping land once inhabited by his tribe.

"It's a real sense of accomplishment," he said, walking out of the Sonoma County forest. "You're preserving the places that are sacred to your people."