Protecting Molok Luyuk, a haven of biological diversity in Northern California
If you’re standing at the summit of Molok Luyuk on a clear day, you can see hundreds of miles around. This point on Molok Luyuk, which means “Condor Ridge” in Patwin, is a little over 3,000 feet high.
“You can see the Sierras now — because it's a little hazy, you can't see Shasta,” said Sandra Schubert, gesturing toward the mountainscape on a recent visit. “But over here we have Snow Mountain and Goat Mountain.”
Schubert is the executive director of Tuleyome, a conservation nonprofit that has pursued protections for this area since 2006. She said it’s known as a haven for biological diversity. Researchers and environmentalists like herself have long advocated for protections that would keep it safe.
“The unique geology and the terrain and the environment is one reason it's such a biodiversity critical spot, and that's why there's so many rare plants,” she said.
In 2015, Berryessa Snow Mountain became a national monument. It spans hundreds of miles of California hillsides and canyons, stretching from Napa to Mendocino counties. With that status came protections for the region’s diverse landscape.
But Molok Luyuk, nestled along the eastern side of the monument’s center, was excluded. Democratic Representative John Garamendi, who represents California’s 8th Congressional District which includes several Bay Area counties, said the exclusion was largely due to proposed wind turbine development in the area.
“It turns out that it's not the best place for a wind development, but it is a terrific place for a very unique natural ecological region,” he said.
More recently, with the wind turbine development plans pushed to the side, environmental groups are hopeful Molok Luyuk can join the rest of the monument. Executive action from President Biden or a bill moving through Congress would offer permanent protections for the area.
Garamendi was one of the federal legislators who introduced that bill in March, alongside California’s two U.S. senators Alex Padilla and Diane Feinstein.
“There are creatures and plants that are in that area that are found no place else in the nation,” Garamendi said. “And so we're going to expand the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument to include this very unique part of California.”
Threats to the area
On the ridge, you can witness the area’s diverse plant life — from football-sized cones lying around gray pines to the superblooms in neighboring meadows.
Nick Jensen, a botanist and conservation director for the California Native Plant Society, said it’s home to 7% of California’s native flora — an astonishing fact for a relatively small space. Here, he said you’ll also find over 30 rare plants, like pink adobe lilies. The CNPS, alongside other environmental groups like Tuleyome, have been invested in safeguarding the area since around 2006.
“This is an area that our members and supporters have been visiting for decades and wanting to conserve,” he said. “My involvement was just carrying on that legacy.”
Schubert said wind projects would decimate this place if they ever moved forward, as they’d likely entail widening roads which could damage plant life in the process. For now, at least, she said there’s no project that poses an imminent threat; the most recent project’s permit was denied by the Bureau of Land Management last year.
But Schubert said there are other concerns. If you visit the ridge, you’ll likely see other visitors traversing pathways in all-terrain vehicles. Schubert said some visitors will take theirs off road — which can unintentionally trample rare plant life and other natural resources.
“There's a significant illegal use up there,” she said. “It's going all over the terrain, it's hurting cultural resources, you'll see the tracks going over sensitive and rare [plant] species.”
If the area was part of the national monument, this would likely change. Garamendi said national monument designation would increase land management while also providing more funding, which could go toward projects like improving trails and conservation.
“The National Monument provides very specific instructions to the federal agencies about how to manage the land and [how] to co-exist with the private land in the area,” Garamendi said. “The specific legislation that we have introduced would apply those management requirements in the [Molok Luyuk] region.”
From “Walker Ridge” to “Molok Luyuk”
The area isn’t just a scientific marvel. It’s also deeply important to nearby tribes, like the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation. The tribe gave the ridge its new name last year, replacing its previous moniker “Walker Ridge” with Molok Luyuk.
Leland Kinter, the tribe’s treasurer, said the Yocha Dehe historically had villages all around this area. Growing up nearby, he remembers the Berryessa Snow Mountain region as the backdrop of his childhood.
“I remember riding in the back of pickup trucks going there, and at the time I didn't know what folks in the front were looking for, but they would be going to look for medicines and different plants and things,” he said. “So, some gathering in those areas before I knew where we were a lot of times … in the dirt roads up there, and in the valleys.”
As a kid, he said his elders told him about the connections the Yocha Dehe had to the land. At one point in time, young men in his tribe would run along the ridges of Molok Luyuk to deliver messages.
“Sometimes you think, wow, what a tremendous amount of shape you had to be into to deliver a message over the top of that ridge,” he said. “I always look up there and think that's quite a feat, you know?”
The Yocha Dehe first got involved with the national monument effort when the last proposed wind development was still a looming threat. Kinter said the tribe had been trying to find ways to protect the area for years before that. Making it part of a national monument seemed like a good way to accomplish this goal.
And after all, he said the tribe saw it as important that they were at the table in these conversations. Families like Kinter’s have lived here for generations and know it well – which helps when deciding its fate, too. He said he’s seen more people recognize the power of that knowledge in recent years.
“In the past, our stories were taken as kind of like folklore,” he said. “But I think what people are seeing now [is] that these are lessons to be learned — these were passed down for a reason, that they carry knowledge.”
Kinter wanted to underscore one key point: The area of importance isn’t one that can be easily defined by names and drawn boundaries. Berryessa, Molok Luyuk — they’re all part of the Yocha Dehe’s vast ancestral lands.
“These designated lines and borders, you know, they're actually, in reality, kind of ambiguous,” he said. “When you live out here, you just see the whole ridge.”
The bill’s fate will likely be decided in the fall. If it’s signed into law, the Yocha Dehe would take part in managing the area. Kinter says that management could include the reintroduction of condors, a species of native vulture that once lived here and are culturally significant to his tribe.
He also says he’d like to provide more information for visitors so they can better understand the land they’re standing on.
“Even though the landscape may look rough and hard, there is a fragility to it,” he said. “Sometimes it takes longer for these things to heal if they've been disturbed and I think if people knew more about those things, that they would take more care.”
If people know more about the land they visit, he said they can still admire its beauty — while also respecting it.