Save the Redwoods League buys world's largest privately owned giant sequoia forest for $15 million

A Bay Area conservation group has signed a deal to purchase the world's largest privately owned giant sequoia forest, a primeval landscape in California's Southern Sierra Nevada with massive trees that soar 250 feet tall, span up to 80 feet around at their trunks and live for more than 2,000 years.

The 530-acre property, known as the Alder Creek, is roughly the same size as Muir Woods National Monument in Marin County. Located in Tulare County 10 miles south of Sequoia National Park, it is home to 483 massive trees that are larger than six feet in diameter - four more trees than the famed Mariposa Grove at Yosemite National Park.

“This is probably the most-coveted sequoia conservation opportunity in a generation,” said Sam Hodder, president of Save the Redwoods League, a non-profit group based in San Francisco that has agreed to pay $15.6 million to purchase the property.

“It's not any single tree,” he said of the landscape, which eventually will be open to the public. “This is an alpine landscape covered with iconic, breathtaking, cinnamon-barked trees that are surrounded by pastures. It is such a superlative representation of nature. This is the prize. This is the best of what's left. It's a very special place.”

The league, founded in 1918, signed a purchase agreement with the Rouch family, who has owned it since the 1940s. The family's patriarch, Claude Albert, bought the land for its logging potential just before World War II, said his grandson, Mike Rouch, of Fresno.

“When they bought the property there was not even a road to it,” he said. “They had to ride horses.”

Over the generations, the family cut down sugar pine, white fir, red fir and other trees to make framing lumber for houses and other products. But they left the massive sequoias largely untouched.

“Less than a dozen were ever taken,” said Rouch. “I'm 62, and there's never been one cut down in my lifetime. They could have gotten fence posts or roof shakes out of them. But I think my dad deep down recognized how beautiful they were and he didn't want to take them.”

A cousin of the coast redwood, which is the world's tallest tree, giant sequoias are the largest living tree by volume on Earth, a prehistoric species that lives up to 3,000 years. Giant sequoias exist today only in 73 groves from the Tahoe National Forest to the Sequoia National Forest east of Bakersfield. Nearly all of the remaining groves are preserved on public land within Yosemite National Park, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, Calaveras Big Trees State Park, and Sequoia National Forest.

Conservation groups have worked for generations to secure permanent protections, acre-by-acre, for each grove.

Last year, Save the Redwoods League spent $3.3 million to buy the world's second-largest privately owned grove of ancient sequoias. Known as the Red Hill property, that 160-acre forest is located about eight miles south of the Alder Creek property. The league plans to transfer both parcels to the U.S. Forest Service over the next decade, so they can be included in the Giant Sequoia National Monument, a part of Sequoia National Forest set aside for special protection in 2000 by President Bill Clinton.

Most of the land in the area is owned by the federal government.

The Alder Creek property, which is located between 5,800 and 7,800 feet in elevation, not far from Golden Trout Wilderness, is an unusual exception.

In the 1800s, to encourage settlement, Congress granted federal land to California and other states in the early West. The states could then sell that land to settlers, farmers, loggers, miners and others to raise money for the construction and financing of schools. So the parcels were called “school lands.”

The practice led to a checkerboard ownership pattern in the Sierra and other rural areas.

Rouch said over the years his family has allowed friends and acquaintances to camp on the property, which features a network of trails and a few cabins. Early in its ownership, the family also allowed a rural development named Sequoia Crest to be constructed on about 100 acres.

Covered with deep snow in the winter, the property is home to mountain lions, black bears, coyotes and abundant bird species.

Alder Creek forest is famous for the Stagg Tree, a 250-foot tall giant named after Amos Alonzo Stagg (1862-1965), a pioneering football coach at the University of Chicago who retired to Stockton. The tree is believed to be the fifth largest tree in the world by volume.

Hodder said that his organization hopes to transfer the Red Hill property to the Forest Service in 2022. But it will retain the Alder Creek property for up to 10 years. During that time, scientists plan to draw up public access plans. They also will work with logging crews and government officials to thin out areas that have grown unnaturally thick after generations of fire suppression.

They will not cut down any ancient sequoias, Hodder said. Rather, workers will remove pine, fir and cedar trees in some places. Over the past 20 years, a number of big forest fires in the Sierra Nevada - including the Pier Fire in 2017 and the Rough Fire in 2015 - have burned so hot that they have killed several dozen giant sequoias. Removing unnaturally thick brush and trees, which the National Park Service regularly does at Mariposa Grove in Yosemite, reduces the risk of severe fires, and increases the likelihood that when fires do start, they will burn more moderately along the forest floor, allowing the fire-resistant trees to survive.

“Our goal is to make sure the property is fire ready,” Hodder said. “The age-old belief that no matter what you throw at giant sequoia, they are going to survive, we now know that's not the case anymore.”

Rouch, who works as a building contractor, said five generations of his family have a history on the Alder Creek property. It is selling it now because, like many families, each generation has more heirs, which makes for complicated estate planning and succession.

He noted that he has never visited Yosemite National Park, a two-hour drive away from his house.

“We have this property. I haven't needed to,” he said.

But that all will probably change now. And Rouch said, he is glad the enormous sequoias he grew up with will be preserved so that future generations will enjoy them.

“We've used the land,” he said. “But we have tried to take the best care of it that we can.”

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