New technology is coming to the aid of the world’s tallest trees, the coast redwoods that blanket Sonoma County hills and date back to the time of dinosaurs.
Climate change has not yet impacted the most iconic of California trees, which live for centuries and in some cases millennia, sheathed in soft, thick reddish bark that shields them from fire and insect damage.
The forest giants are thriving. Despite the rampant logging that for 150 years swept over their historic range having been virtually eliminated, organizations that protect and manage thousands of acres of redwoods in Sonoma County and the North Coast are looking for ways to fortify them against the anticipated stress of rising temperatures.
One answer may be deeply embedded in the trees themselves.
The Save the Redwoods League, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that has helped protect nearly 200,000 acres of forestland in more than 60 parks and preserves, is now betting $2.6 million on a 5-year project to unravel the remarkably complex DNA of the redwoods, and ultimately gain new tools for their conservation.
“The Redwood Genome Project is our opportunity to apply the world’s most cutting-edge science to save the redwoods for the next century,” said Emily Burns, the league’s director of science. “With genetic insight at our disposal, we will be able to enhance protection for the world’s most beloved trees.”
Already underway, the project has begun teasing out the genetic code of a redwood from Butano State Park in San Mateo County. The code, expressed in the DNA of every living cell, amounts to a “parts list” for the entire organism, said David Neale, a UC Davis professor of plant genetics who is project partner.
Redwoods, like humans, share a basic genetic code, but no two are exactly alike due to naturally occurring DNA mutations that produce traits, such as hair and eye color in humans, and in redwoods resistance to drought or capacity for fast growth.
The project’s ultimate goal is to recognize the genetic diversity within a redwood forest, founded on the premise that greater diversity affords it a better chance of long-term survival, Burns said.
“We are trying to re-create the attributes of old-growth forests,” she said.
That’s necessary because nature, and more recently humans, have been harsh on redwoods, which are descended from cone-bearing trees that flourished more than 200 million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the planet. In a warmer, more humid climate, redwood species grew throughout North America, Europe and Asia.
Successive ice ages narrowed redwoods to small regions, with coast redwoods on a 450-mile stretch of the West Coast from southern Oregon to central California and giant sequoia, the world’s most massive tree, on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada. Both are found nowhere else in the world.
There were 2 million acres of redwoods on the coast until the mid-19th century California Gold Rush exploded the demand for timber and subsequent waves of clear-cutting eliminated 95 percent of the old-growth forests. Only 120,000 acres of ancient forest remain, about 75 percent of it protected in parks and preserves.
Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Preserve in Guerneville and the Grove of Old Trees at Occidental are among the places where people can stroll among the old giants.
Save the Redwoods League, founded in 1918, has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into saving the trees through buying protective easements and outright purchases of land.