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Feature: The BLM works with Native American tribes to protect Painted Rock, Carrizo Plain 

Sacred space

click to enlarge go-feature-carrizo-therock-w2023.jpg


Prairie falcons, barn owls, and great horned owls nest on top of the only rock for what seems like miles. Basque sheepherders and cowboys used to rest inside its protective embrace, and Native Americans have revered it for thousands of years.

Evidence of the past colors the interior of its curved expanse—graffiti from the last 100 to 150 years defaced layers of 3,000- to 4,000-year-old paintings, images sketched as an expression of cultural and spiritual beliefs.

Painted Rock on the Carrizo Plain National Monument continues to be a sacred space for Native American tribes, which hold ceremonies there throughout the year. It’s a place that needs protection from those who aim to leave their mark, said Susana Mata, a member of the yak tityu tityu yak tiłhini tribe (ytt Northern Chumash) who has served on Carrizo’s Native American Advisory Council since 1997.

“When I go to the Carrizo and I step on the land, I feel safe, and I feel a connection to the land,” Mata said. “I’m part of a tribe that has a long, long history in that area, and I just feel very strongly about the protection of the cultural resources, of conservation, and I want most of all to give respect to our ancestors, and do everything we can to protect.”

The advisory council is made up of several tribes, including the Bakersfield Chumash, Coastal Band of Chumash, the Salinan Tribe, and ytt Northern Chumash. What started as a something tied strictly to Painted Rock and the ceremonies that tribes participate in there, such as for the summer and winter solstices, naturally expanded into looking at plants, animals, and how humans use the Carrizo, Mata said. Around the time that the Carrizo received monument status in 2000, the Bakersfield Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office established an advisory committee made up of stakeholders—such as Native American Advisory Council members, ranchers, environmentalists, and local, state, and federal representatives—to collaborate on managing the monument and its resources.

“It was a real education for us as Native people, because they told us all about the BLM and what their purpose was and rationale, plus we were able to meet a lot of the administration,” she said. “We also met with ranchers, oil and gas industries—and that’s a wide group of people and community of people that live out there.”

Monument Manager Johnna Hurl said the BLM recognizes the importance of the Carrizo to Native Americans, and wanted to establish a relationship with the tribes early on in order to gain their input on projects and managing activities.

Working with that diverse group, stakeholders were able to put together management guidelines for the monument and its resources: plant, cultural, endangered species such as pronghorn antelope and tule elk, and more.

“It wasn’t easy, let me tell you. It was hard. We worked it out though, and we were able to come together and do this,” Mata said. “I’ve been really impressed with the BLM in being so open and willing to work with us on so many different issues. … It’s like we’re a team, you know, it took everybody to do this.”

Those guidelines included rules for Painted Rock that enable tribes to continue using it to conduct ceremonies as well as keeps it open and available to the public, which is what they wanted, Mata said. No climbing or writing is allowed, and visitation is limited, as are photographs of the pictographs.

From July 15 to March 1, Painted Rock is open to the public for self-guided tours with a permit that’s available through Monument Manager Hurl said the BLM does offer guided tours at other times of the year, also by permit, but it’s closed to open visitation due to nesting birds.

Hurl said the BLM does monitor Painted Rock, including the paintings to see if any damage has occurred.

“We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had any defacing of the pictographs during the time that we’ve been having this permit system in place and while we’ve been doing the tours,” Hurl said.

But there are still issues, Mata said, with some of the visitors who make the trip out to Painted Rock and Carrizo. Not everyone respects the place as they should, she said. Working with the BLM, the advisory council has tried to combat the issues with signage, but it doesn’t always work.

“The main thing is that people respect the place that it is—a sacred place to us and other tribes for thousands of years. … You would be surprised. People want to climb it, want to go out there and camp and have a fire,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are still things that happen, and I cannot believe that people can be so disrespectful.”

Carrizo Plains visitor’s center reopens to the public


A stiff wind blew across the Carrizo Plain National Monument on Dec. 1, 2022—as it almost always does—fluttering across the grass in front of the newly remodeled Goodwin Education Center.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Cal Fire, the Bureau of Land Management, Friends of the Carrizo Plain, and members of the Native American Advisory Council came together with many others to celebrate its reopening. Susana Mata with the yak tityu tityu yak tiłhini tribe and other advisory council members helped bless the new space with sage and a ceremony.

“The purpose of this place is not only to educate but to help people become culturally literate,” Mata said, adding that Painted Rock has suffered a lot of damage in recent history. “And we want it to be here forever. We want your children and their children and everyone else to take care of this land.”

BLM Central California District Manager Chris Heppe spoke after the ceremony, saying that the BLM depends on tight partnerships to help manage the land it’s responsible for. Carrizo, he said, is special for many reasons, including Painted Rock, annual wildflower blooms, alkali flats, the San Andreas fault, and his favorite endangered species, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard.

“People come from all over to experience all of those resources, the wellness, and the solitude,” Heppe said.

The number of visitors has increased significantly in recent spring “superbloom” years, thanks to viral posts on social media, Monument Manager Johna Hurl said on that windy day. While the monument normally receives between 70,000 and 100,000 people a year, mostly between December and May, the monument had that many visitors in April and May alone in 2017.


“We were trying to get 2,000 to 3,000 people through the door [of the visitor’s center]. And the interns said they were quitting,” she said with a laugh. “That was when we knew that the visitor’s center just wasn’t big enough.”

Since 2010, the monument has wanted to revamp Goodwin—it was a matter of finding the funding for it. In 2021, Hurl said, they received the funding to add about 800 square feet to the building, almost doubling its size, and increase the number of interpretive displays it held.

A giant condor looms overhead on one end of the visitor’s center while paintings of wildflowers and the open plains are tucked inside a separate room. Painted Rock is visible in the distance through one of the windows, as the grass shakes and whips in the breeze.

Most of the year, the Carrizo Plain is relatively quiet, Hurl said.

“It’s one of those places you can go all day without seeing another person,” Hurl said.


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