Poison oak planted to protect Feather River burial
California: A flood control agency is planting poison oak, wild roses and blackberries on a few acres along the Feather River. They're even irrigating it to help it thrive.
Agency officials say they have a pretty good reason for it.
"We do it for a specific purpose," said Paul Brunner, director of the Three Rivers Levee Improvement Authority. "To try to keep people away from Native American burial grounds."
The oak and thorn patch sit on a 1,600-acre project that a includes plantings of less obnoxious native plants like willow, box elder and cottonwood. Poison oak, native to most spots west of the Sierra, fits in with the other native plants.
"Deer browse it. It doesn't affect them like it affects us," said Greg Suba from the California Native Plant Society.
Birds also eat its berries – which helps account for its spread – and small mammals seek its shelter.
The flood control agency is responsible for protecting ancient sites from floods along the Feather, Bear and Yuba rivers. Levees were strengthened and moved back along the Feather. This widened the channel for heavy storms and dam releases.
But moving the levees "put an existing burial ground into an area that is now on the floodway," Brunner said.
It was not the only burial ground affected by the levee project. Artifacts were discovered in a different area.
"In the roots of the walnut tree were burial ground artifacts," Brunner said. "Native American Indians historically had encampments along the river." The agency protected that burial ground by building the new levee right on top of it.
In both cases, the levee agency consulted with the Enterprise Rancheria of Maidu Indians. The tribe is considered the most likely descendants of those who had camped along the Feather.
"(W)e are reluctant to provide information that might lead to the identification of specific sites based on the extensive looting and desecration that has occurred in the past," wrote Enterprise Rancheria Tribal Chairwoman Glenda Nelson.
Lou Binninger, a Marysville radio host, has started a tongue-in-cheek campaign to declare poison oak as Yuba County's official shrub. "If you think poison oak is so great, we don't have a county shrub," he said. "Let's make it the county shrub and let's make it our flower."
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